Jun 242013

Choose Wisely
Choose Wisely

Something odd happened to me the other day. It was not that odd, certainly not newsworthy-level-odd, but odd nonetheless and it had a remarkable effect on me. Not only at the moment but throughout the day.

Here’s the short version: I walked into the wrong restroom.

But there’s more to it than that. Allow me to explain in greater detail.

I work in a very large office complex. It is a campus of large buildings, each holding several hundred workers. As one would expect, there are restroom along every main corridor. Now add me to this picture; distracted, disjointed, planning my next piece of code as a I absent-mindedly wander a hallway on the way to the on-premises cafe for coffee.

This wasn’t a bathroom trip, this was a coffee trip, but I am going right by them. In a split second, I both recognize the need to use a restroom and act on it; I blunder through the restroom door.

The very second that the door opens, even though I am deep in thought about something else, totally focused on that other thing, even so, something registers immediately, instantly.

Something is wrong.

Time gets weird when things like this happen. The initial wrongness was immediate as soon as the door swung open; but it was not enough to bring my momentum to a halt; I continued entering the room.

Something is WRONG! My brain is shouting at me now.

The door closes behind me. Even with my brain alarming at full pound, my inertia and slow reaction time propel me; I take one full step inwards.


I specifically remember noting that the world was the wrong color. And there was a wall where I expected open space.

A whole lot of brain processing has occurred in the tiny segment of time between (beginning to open the door) and (making it one step inside the restroom). How much time could that be? A second? A second-and-a-half?

According to this interesting test, the average human reaction time is about a quarter second. But this test involves clicking a button that you are expecting to click, knowing you are being timed. Back in my high school drivers ed class* I remember being told that the average driving reaction time was 1.5 seconds, something cited in this article too.

* Yes they had cars way back then. Stop being a wise ass

Whether it was a quarter second or a second-and-a-half I cannot say, but I can say with full confidence that there was very little time between my shoulder hitting the door and my body coming to full stop inside the room. Yet it was time for a whole lot of brain activity, and all done unconsciously; the conscious portion of my mind was fully engaged in coding.


So there I am, one full step inside the room. The alert portion of my brain has finally gotten the attention of the rest of my brain; details speed by me like fastballs in a batting cage: the room is shaped differently. Everything is in stalls. Toilet paper must be very important here, it is everywhere. There are no urinals.

I am in the wrong restroom.

It may have taken me 1.5 seconds to realize where I was, but it took way less time to do something about it. I never really decided to leave, I just acted, and suddenly I was gone. I don’t even remember opening the door again but I am sure I was back out in the hallway in under a second.

I don’t have conscious thoughts again until I am safely in the correct restroom, at the urinal. As soon as I regain self-awareness I notice that I am in a weird state: I am panting more than breathing. My pulse is pounding, my forehead feels like it is going to explode. I am completely covered with a fine sheen of sweat.

I know this feeling. This is how you feel immediately after a traffic accident. This is how you feel when the childhood bully has you cornered after school. This is adrenaline. This is panic.

All because of two missteps. But really, all because of decades of social reinforcement of taboo: one does not enter the Ladies room. One simply does not.

As I am standing there, I inventory the real damage: I saw no one inside, so no one saw me. I may have been noted in the hallway, but probably not, it was nearly empty and the people who populate the hallway are the kind of people who don’t make eye contact anyway; it seems unlikely anyone noticed. Even if they did, I assume it would have been obvious by my instant re-emergence that I had made a silly mistake rather than some sort of Human Resources-actionable perversion.

So, no actual danger of anything beyond embarrassment. And yet, there I am, standing at the urinal with my forehead pulsating from the adrenaline.

Social taboo is a powerful thing. I wonder if I could ever go into the Ladies room on purpose? Even if I had “permission”? Or would I just lockup in a puddle of meek, mindless refusal, while my unconscious pounds any logic and rationality away with an adrenaline sledgehammer? Would I even be able to articulate exactly why I was not going in?

Taboo. One rarely encounters it during normal life. But when one does, it is a powerful thing. Powerful.

And interesting.

🙂 😀 🙂

p.s. In salute to Mizzaroo’s tradition, my song of the day. Appropriate too, because as the above article attests, I do know what I am.

  One Response to “The Power of Taboo”

Comments (1)
  1. Wow! Cars existed when you were young? Sheesh! You’re so old I just presumed you were never young!
    Also, what’s this about how I can’t use the ladies room? Does this mean its okay for me to use the men’s now? 😉
    Anyways, I’m glad you didn’t find yourself in an extremely embarrassing situation. That wouldn’t have been fun I’m sure. Like, you know, if you walked in on a woman helping another woman adjust her bra or something.

What do you think?

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