We don’t have a guest bathroom in our home. This means when we entertain everyone uses our main bathroom, and our life is readily on display. Lotions, hair products, make-up, vitamins and heartburn medications are on the counter. There is only so much we can really put away even though I’ve started making the effort to remove anything truly personal when I neaten up ahead of company. This is only an issue when we are expecting a large group beyond our siblings and parents and was spurred in part when I discovered a visitor helped herself to lotion and mouthwash and eyeliner after using the facilities. And why not? These items were out in the open; there were no apparent restrictions to them, but it felt like a violation. It would have been different if this were a guest or secondary bathroom where these items were left out explicitly for visitors, but these were personal items.
This kind of behavior is not unusual. One source reports that an approximate 40% of people will snoop in their host's bathroom if given the opportunity (and 38% of hosts admit that they put things away before guests arrive—I guess we've joined that number). Afterward we wondered what else could she have done while she was in there. Did she peruse our prescription medications? Count our bandaids? Check on our birth control practices? But also, why would she have done this—theoretically? What are people hoping to find when they open the door to the medicine cabinet? Is there a commonly understood line of privacy that shouldn’t be crossed when a private space is temporarily shared?
In general, the bathroom is a private space. It’s removed from the more communal spaces of our homes where we eat and gather to socialize. This is particularly true in the age of the open floor plan, where people knock down walls for open sight lines in their homes. The bathroom has a door. It is one of the few spaces that always has a door—for example, this is true even in a studio apartment where not even the bedroom is afforded this separation from common spaces. We close this door as it is one of the true barriers to who we are and who we want the the world to see. Bathing, grooming, and using the toilet are intimate acts that leave us physically vulnerable. Decor within these spaces is generally intended to be relaxing, and what relaxes us can be highly personal (and the absence of these items is equally telling). These spaces are ours and ours alone. We don’t need to work to satisfy anyone else with the requirements for this room, unless it is meant to be shared with visitors.
The guest bathroom has fewer personal items. It contains the necessities that a stranger (i.e., someone who does not live in the residence) would need to be comfortable but none of the personal items that define the host. The guest bathroom is a neutral space. The host’s bathroom can never be neutral because everything in that space is designed to help manufacture the host for public consumption and participation in public spaces.
Guest bathrooms are no different than other communal spaces in our homes; while our home is a generally private space in that it is ours, these communal spaces are designed to be more outward facing and are curated as such. While we might be inclined to leave a load (or several) of unfolded laundry in the corner of our bedroom or to leave our personal bathroom in a disarray if pressed for time in the morning, we’re less likely to allow that in communal spaces. (Seriously, who out there hasn’t quickly picked up the living room because company was coming over and tossed everything into the bedroom or an office, and shut the door?) Our things reflect the way we see the world, but also the way we want people to see us. our home is an extension of that.
It’s not surprising to learn then that from the moment someone enters our home, they are gathering information about us. Does the host read? What kinds of books do they read? Is the television on? Are they watching sports or a movie? Do they have plants? Pets? A throw on the sofa? Are their children’s toys out in the open or put away? Are there photos—and of whom? People engage in this information gathering exercise automatically. It confirms what we think we know about the person, but it also affirms a sense of likeness. A degree of conformity is necessary for social cohesion. In other words, we want to know that the people we associate with are like us—or how and in what ways they are unlike us. From an evolutionary perspective, this helps identify likely allies and shared resources.
This kind of snooping fits with the information-gathering paradigm that we engage to confirm our understanding of someone's identity. There are three general levels of "knowing" that we traverse when as we progress in a relationship: traits, personal concerns, and identity.
- Broad descriptors—traits—represent our first read on someone. Are they curious and friendly or do they appear anxious and moody? There are five classes of traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) represented by some 4500 words in the English language. Traits represent a snap judgement on someone and may help determine if we want to get to know that person better. If you can identify someone’s surface traits, you’re an acquaintance.
- Personal concerns are contextual details, such as roles, goals, skills, and values, that you would never know in passing. We learn about personal concerns by asking strategic questions, like “Who’s your favorite band?” or “Where did you stay while you were in Mexico?” or “What preschool did you decide on?” They’re simple questions that we work into our conversations as we look for common ground. These questions vary depending on the audience. For example, one study asked 60 college-ages men and women were asked to task about anything they thought would help them get to know one another. Researchers recorded and coded every word they spoke for six weeks and seven themes emerged. Topics around books, clothing, movies, music, television, football, and sports were repeated over and over, and interestingly, as people moved forward in their "relationships," music continued to represent common ground. It was a salient topic to this group, but others may have different grounds for connecting.
- Identity is the foundation of personality; it ties together traits and personal concerns and experiences together in a singular narrative. Identity is the story someone tells about themselves, and the one that we look to repeat when asked about that person.
To preserve the relationships we have with others, we’re always looking for discrepancies between the ways we perceive them and the way they represent themselves. Snooping in someone’s bathroom can be an ideal way to get confirmation—or damning evidence—to support what you believe you know about them. It allows you to vet their narrative. Perhaps on the surface, they seem neat and organized, but their bathroom reveals something else. Or they've stated that their goal is to exercise regularly, but their bathroom reveals that they're using weight loss pills to perpetuate the myth that they spend four hours at the gym.
As with most things, we have tiers of privacy and presentation when it comes to our spaces. The front yard versus the backyard of many homes provides a great example of this. The front spaces are often manicured and structured for public consumption, while the backyard is often structured for personal use, and tends to have a more relaxed atmosphere. It may mean sacrificing landscape for usable space, but this is a homeowner's call.
We're also likely have tiers of accessibility, meaning that some people in our networks may be able to gain access to more reserved spaces and areas of our lives. For example, it’s unlikely you’ll invite all of your Facebook connections over for a dinner party, and maybe not everyone you do invite will know where your bedroom is or be permitted into that space unsupervised. Access to someone's private space is a privilege, and because it is a privilege, it can be hard to pass on the opportunity to pull back the curtain. There may be an unspoken understanding about privacy, but the potential to know more often wins out. And using the items in that space can help the visitor feel more committed to host; it expresses a comfort in the relationship that may or may not be reciprocated.
Ultimately, while these kinds of actions may seem invasive, they're also a means to test the strength of a connection. In a time when we have never been more heavily manufactured, the opportunity to experience authenticity isn't something easily overlooked.
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Gosling, Sam (2009). Snoop: What Your Stuff Says about You. Basic Books.
Kanner, Bernice (1995). Are you normal? Do you behave like everyone else? Macmillan.
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