When a reader posed this question my first response was unequivocally, “Yes.”
In the dining seminars I instruct, I tell participants, “If you find yourself with something between your teeth, quietly excuse yourself to the restroom.” Excusing yourself from the shared common space of a dinner or reception to solve a personal issue in private is what is called for.
You opt for this because you couldn’t imagine yourself picking at your teeth in the company of others. And, as is the topic here, you typically brush your teeth in private.
We all consider restrooms to be, as Miss Manners has said, “backstage areas, in which one prepares oneself to go on public view . . . Many routines that are performed in order to increase human attractiveness are themselves unattractive.”
Though, hypothetically you are tending to private needs in a carved out personal area (the sink of the bathroom), others are also tending to their private needs. And there you are – sometimes several of you – sharing common space to handle these private needs.
In public restrooms, courtesy calls upon you to allow the appearance of privacy in that shared space. Ideally keep your eyes to yourself, even though eyes are space invaders and don’t tend to follow the rules they hope others will follow.
The person who wrote to me explained that she always brushes her teeth after each meal and sometimes wants to floss her teeth as well. This is a commendable hygiene practice, but understandably can make you feel awkward when strangers are present.
In an attempt to remain completely private, she has tried brushing in the restroom stall. But dropped items in the stall pose sanitary, if not physically awkward challenges.
The bottom line is: it is appropriate to brush your teeth at the sink in a public restroom. However, be mindful of small spaces and the number of people waiting to use a sink. Courtesy may call for you to delay your task until the crowd thins.
You’ve probably seen off-putting scenarios involving strangers using basin and counter areas with loud flourishing and messy spitting. You might respond, “But who cares—if you are a stranger in an airport, for example, you’ll never see the people in the restroom again and there are people, whose specific jobs are to clean counter tops, sink areas and splashed mirrors.”
But there are personal space boundaries in shared public bathrooms. Tending to personal needs should balance with hygiene and intimate space concerns for others.
Generally, restrooms rank along with kitchens as shared spaces where annoyances register strongly. Again, public restrooms call for courtesy:
These courtesies build on your personal and public good etiquette habits.
Adam Smith, the famous moral philosopher/economist, emphasized that everyone is in a maturation process. Through built-in empathy with others, we learn which emotions distress others and we learn how to recognize and handle situations by managing our actions to the point where any average dis-interested person or stranger would go along with (in some sense approve of) our actions.
So, applying this to public restroom situations, when we see others taking care of commonly shared space, we feel good about it, and thus, them.
Regardless of the culture we are in, the mannerly principle that we tend to ourselves well in commonly shared spaces, with a mindful respect for others who are in the same situation we are, is bound to serve everyone well.