Now here's a nice little problem to be thrashed out: when going into an empty ladies' toilet, and faced with two or more vacant cubicles, which should you choose, assuming all are equally clean and attractive?
Is it a desperately important issue? Well, for some nervous souls it might be. We feel most vulnerable with knickers dropped in a public place. And moreover a place where (if someone else comes in) neither can avoid listening to the other, and where there may be an unwanted social encounter as one or other emerges from the cubicle after flushing the loo. Anglo-Saxon attitudes to proper and improper behaviour, hedged in by prudery where private parts and intimate functions are concerned, rob us all of breezy, laid-back easiness in such a place. I do wonder whether, for some, the choice of cubicle is determined by how simple it might be to escape after the deed is done.
Like me, you may yourself be perfectly cool and casual about all this, and feel no stress, and no need for an exit plan. You may even, like me, enjoy the prospect of a brief chat while putting windswept hair to rights, or restoring faded lipstick. I will confess however that for me it wasn't always so. As a child I felt terribly awkward in a public toilet, seriously embarrassed, and that gaucheness long lingered on. But nowadays things are different. I am indisputably an adult human being with normal body functions, who has every possible right to be not only who I am, but a user of these particular toilets. And moreover a user who will, if she so wishes, look frankly and straightly into the eyes of anyone who peers curiously or rudely at me. The thin-lipped, censorious and disapproving can't disconcert me.
How I wish I had such confidence when young! But then, how I wish for so many things that would have transformed my own childhood experience. Sigh.
Back to the problem I posed. Setting aside irrational feelings that require a rapid and secretive in-out strategy, what is the basis for going into one cubicle rather than another? Is there some unwritten rule? Or some behavioral thing hard-wired into human psychology? Or is it just something determined by obvious things such as the level of lighting, apparent cleanliness, or which cubicle has toilet paper and which hasn't?
I don't think this is quite the same problem as choosing a good seat on an empty bus. On a bus, there are many other considerations. Whether one has luggage or shopping bags or is pushing a buggy with a child in it. Whether one is unsteady on the feet. Whether sitting too far from the exit will mean getting trapped on board by the crowded passengers between one's seat and the exit. Then there's the view, and whether one will end up cheek-by-jowl with nightmare passengers. But there is possibly a similarity, in that whether on a bus, or in a cubicle, a nervous person will want to stay unnoticeable and avoid an unnecessary social exchange.
What about unwritten rules? It's always a bit odd when a stranger sits next to you on an otherwise empty bus or train. It's an invasion of personal space. But that rule seems not to apply in a ladies' toilet, when, given a choice of, say, a dozen cubicles, person number 1 may well find persons numbers 2 and 3 (total strangers who come in afterwards) choosing the cubicles on either side. In other words, there's a tendency to sit in clusters. So much so, it's often possible to find a cubicle at the far end that hardly gets used, and remains almost pristine all day long. I'm thinking there's a female thing going on here, no doubt unconsciously: safety in staying together in a group. It would obviously apply to mother and child, sisters, and girl friends; and it still applies when the only link is the basic fact that the various unrelated occupants are all female. I don't think this is the case in the male world, where it might be regarded as suspect if one man urinates too close to another, and there is no need for instinctive collective protection. Surely none of this amounts to a 'rule', though - it's just a reflection of social norms.
So what do I do? Do I try hard to be super-female, or do I prefer rationality? Well, I confess to rationality. If entering on my own, I always select the cleanest, best-lit cubicle available, which more often than not tends to be the one furthest from the entrance door. That doesn't matter one bit: I don't need to make a rapid escape. The basin closest to that cubicle is generally the nicest one too. This said, if I were with a girl friend, I would almost certainly sit close to her, even if not actually in the very next cubicle. So you could say my approach is in fact a mixture of rationality and social conditioning, and it all depends on whether I'm alone or not.
I can't help thinking that this apparently trivial problem has deeper undertones! I could go into several other things, but will desist. All right, it's worth mentioning, for instance, the etiquette of flushing - now that I think about it, it seems usual to flush the loo just before leaving the cubicle, and not at an earlier point. The flushing noise is a polite signal to queuing ladies that a cubicle will, within seconds, become free. And because there is always the possibility of a queue, no woman ever likes to spend a lot of time in the cubicle, and will apologise profusely if she absolutely has to. There are of course scummy women around who have no social graces whatever, but friendly courtesy and understanding is the norm in a ladies' loo, and long may that remain the case.
By the way, I hate 'unisex' toilets. I avoid them. I would rather find a pub or a hotel and buy a coffee as the price of using a proper female-only area to do my business in, knowing that no unsavoury man has waggled his willy over the toilet seat and dribbled everywhere.