I Believe I Am the Last Man in the World Who Politely Knocks on the Bathroom Door Before Barging…

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Aug. 12 2013 5:45 AM

Didn’t Anyone Ever Teach You to Knock?

The lost art of tapping on the bathroom door before entering.

Bathroom door.
You didn't knock, did you?

Photo by Alexander Ignatiev/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Consider this a lament for lost manners, a field study of animal behavior, and a call to arms—no, not arms, knuckles. Consider this a prayer to Janus, the Roman god of doors, that he inflict millions of Americans with incontinence to punish their daily sins of inconsideration. You are reading a rant about unheard raps. I am asking a question: Didn't anyone ever teach you to knock?

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

Consider this a eulogy for a common courtesy. Knocking on a bathroom door is not yet entirely a dead custom, but it is surely in critical condition, and I fear that it will not be long before it expires, startled to death when some yahoo barges into its hospital room unannounced.

Perhaps the decent people of the Midwest still have the intelligence to apply the rounded prominence of their finger joints to the closed doors of single-occupancy public bathrooms before attempting entry. It would be nice to think that the disappearance of proper knocking is simply an index of urban decadence rather than a symptom of broader societal decline. But from where I sit in the Northeast—from where I have sat and stood, on and at toilets from the Starbucks constellations of Fairfax County, Va., to the brewpubs of Portland, Me.—it seems that everything has gone to hell. As a member of the creative class who "works from home," I spend a lot of time in establishments purveying such life-giving substances as caffeine, beer, San Pellegrino fruit soda, and free Wi-Fi, and in my experience, the only person who frequently patronizes such places and who knocks on the bathroom door and waits two seconds before attacking the knob like a scabby-faced philistine is me.

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This state of affairs is extremely vexing; this bit of etiquette is so elementary that the Emily Post franchise seems to address it only in a volume on raising respectful kids: "A child should know not to open a closed bathroom door without knocking." It is impossible to determine when exactly parents quit raising their children properly—or whether, in fact, the actual problem is that the kids, all grown up, stored their senses of propriety in a box still in their parents' attic. Whatever the case, it is plain to see that decency is losing to heathenism, and that there is only one potential upside to this: American agriculture must be celebrating a resurgence, what with so many people being raised in barns. 

There can be said to exist a Never Knock On The Bathroom lobby online. These people, the NKOTBs, predicate their shared idiocy on the notions that "knocking may be interpreted as rushing" and that it's "really awkward ... to say, 'I'll be right out!' just because someone else decided to be polite." These statements are too vulgar to merit a proper response, but here goes: 

A knock combines an announcement and a query. A simple inquisitive knock—two eighth notes and a quarter note will do just fine—says, Hello. Is anyone in there? If so, please forgive me for disturbing your privacy, but I hope to enter this room as soon as I can, and I thought I'd check before just testing the door like some kind of lout. Being, like myself, a civilized person, you surely are glad to be thus spared the unnerving nuisance of the knob's abrupt metallic rattle. Which is not to mention that I'm potentially saving us the mutual embarrassment that might result if the latch is faulty or if you've been forgetful. So, again, sorry to bug you, if indeed there's anyone in there to bug, but surely you understand my curiosity. Please advise at your soonest convenience. 

The basic knock is not a signal to rush, you poor fools. A signal to rush is more like the side-fisted battering-ram action that should only be heard by people who have definitely been in there longer than it takes to change the diapers of infant triplets; people who've been in there long enough for the crowd outside the bathroom to reach consensus on whether the occupant is putting his or her orifices to erotic, insufflationary, or antiperistaltic purposes; people who need to wrap it up so a guy can take a whizz already. 

One is almost sympathetic with the simpering little milquetoast above who finds it "really awkward" to reply to a knock on the bathroom door with a four-syllable indication of his presence. After all, society is letting him down by not giving him sufficient opportunity to practice replying to a knock on the bathroom door. Would it help the dear lad to know that other utterances are also acceptable? It is possible to say, “Occupied!” in a sing-songy delivery. "Un momento!" is easy to articulate cheerfully. “Yo!” is fairly succinct. And in the perfect world that I cannot stop wistfully daydreaming of, every house-trained American would select a standard two-syllable response to the call of the knock: The knocker would jauntily tap out the first five notes of the Shave and a Haircut riff, and the occupant would complete the phrase by saying, "Two secs!" or "Hold up!" or (in a jocular tone) "Get lost!" or suchlike. 

Alas, that standard of liminal communication exists only as a Platonic ideal. Double alas, the one thing less mannerly than trying the knob before trying a knock is saying, "Didn't anyone ever teach you any manners?" to those buffoons and bumpkins who haven't been taught any manners. The only proper way to scold them is to wait until exiting, make eye contact, and mutely lift a pitying glare.

Is there any hope of restoring the knuckles to their rightful place on the plane of the door? No, don't be silly, of course not; the world has gone to hell, duh. That said, I encourage you, dear reader, to support my plan to hybridize social engineering and interior design. I am calling upon America's café owners and tavern keepers and restaurateurs to install door knockers at the portals to the potties within their establishments, in the hope that non-knockers, given something shiny to play with, will correct their own behavior. As you can see, knockers are available in a variety of attractive styles. One can imagine that a restaurant specializing in modernist cuisine might go in for something in the Bauhaus tradition or that an Irish pub could have fun paying homage to the Knock Museum in County Mayo. Many retailers offer personalization options.

I'm dead serious about this. Indeed, as soon as Kickstarter verifies my Amazon Payments account, I will be raising money to acquire vintage door knockers and distribute them to worthy venues. Look for it under "Conceptual Art," "Preservation of Public Standards" not being an option offered on Kickstarter's drop-down menu. To repeat: I'm not even kidding. When it comes to the matter of manners and to raising an arm to extend a courtesy, a knock knock is not a joke.