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This Loo Is in Use

Declaring your bathroom intentions, plus young-visitor rules and alcohol-free parties.

Miss Conduct
(Illustration / Nathalie Dion)

When you’re using a public bathroom and someone knocks on the door, what is the most polite thing to say? I find myself saying, "Someone’s in here." I feel strange referring to myself as "someone," but if I say, "I’m in here," I feel as if I’m being territorial with a public space. "Occupied" sounds too formal. "Taken" is rude. "Just a moment" has the potential to be a lie. So what do you think?

B.E. in Weymouth
I think it doesn’t much matter what I write, because if everyone who reads this column is like me, they will still be laughing too hard at the " ‘Just a moment’ has the potential to be a lie" part of your question to be paying much attention to my answer.

You would obviously make a wonderful lawyer or copy editor, if you aren’t already. But you really needn’t be quite so literal in your interpretation of "just a moment." Moments aren’t actually quantifiable like minutes or seconds; they’re more a social measure of time than a chronological one. The person on the outside of the door isn’t clicking a stopwatch when you say "Just a moment," with plans to accuse you of mendacity if you exceed some predetermined time limit. Rather, he or she is interpreting your statement, correctly, as meaning, "I shall vacate this facility as soon as I can, given the nature of the business taking place herein, and, yes, I am cognizant you are waiting and thus will conduct said business with all deliberate speed to the extent compatible with the demands of health and hygiene."

Of course, if you wanted to be terribly precise, you could always say that, but hopefully you’d be out of the loo before you finished.

A family member regularly instructs his children (ages 8 and 5) to be careful around my possessions because they are "very expensive." I’m uncomfortable with this because it makes it seem I have nicer things than I really do and it’s teaching the children that inexpensive things are not worth caring for. Should I just be quiet and happy the tykes are not throwing my average things around? Or should I contradict the parent and tell the children they should respect all things regardless of value? It’s tough as an uncle with no kids of my own to know my place in this discussion.
K.G. in Dayton, Ohio

I agree that your relative is sending the wrong message about money and care-taking to the kids, but it’s not your place to correct his values. (If this statement even reflects his values. I suspect he doesn’t really think that only expensive things deserve good care, but just latched onto the phrase because it’s convenient and seems to work. But that’s neither here nor there.) However, he’s also sending a wrong message about you, and you definitely have the right to do something about that. Don’t say anything in front of the children, which would undermine him. Wait until you’re alone, and tell him that you’re afraid that the "Uncle K.G. has very expensive things, so be careful" speech makes you sound like a materialistic fussbudget and you don’t want the children to get that impression of you. You want to be the festive laid-back uncle that the kids like to visit, not the fussy Uncle Felix around whom they have to tiptoe and talk in whispers. Ask if he can find a different way to make sure the kids don’t wreak havoc on your ordinary possessions. If you phrase this in terms of your desire to make the children comfortable and keep a strong relationship with them, he’ll probably be touched by your concern and not at all offended.

My fiance and I have decided we will offer no alcoholic beverages at our wedding reception, primarily because both of our families include alcoholics and recovering alcoholics. We don’t want to create awkward situations for those who don’t drink anymore, nor do we want those who drink in excess to create awkward situations for themselves. Should we make people aware on the invitation or in some less formal way that it will be a dry reception?
E.M. in Brighton

Your decision is a wise one, and I congratulate you for it. I don’t think you need to announce in advance that the reception will be dry. Doing so would make the absence of alcohol very conspicuous – "Look, everyone! No booze! We can all have fun without it!" Your guests would be looking at all the other guests and trying to figure out who the problem drunk is – or wondering, uneasily, if the problem drunk is them. And the real problem drunks would be grateful for the warning, because that way they’d know to bring a flask.

If you still worry that an alcohol-free reception would somehow look odd or violate people’s expectations, you could always make it a daytime wedding, where a lack of alcohol wouldn’t seem unusual.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology.

Send your etiquette questions to Miss Conduct by clicking here.


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