The Weird, Disgusting Art of the Toilet Power Meeting
Presidents, legendary soccer managers and corporate executives do it. But why?
Ah, the bathroom. It’s a place we all visit multiple times a day, and one of the only spaces that exists as both totally public and private.
For some, however, the commode is more than just a place to take care of bodily functions. Consider the ways in which the intimacy and privacy of the space has rendered it an ideal den of vice, whether in a song like Brownsville Station’s one-hit wonder “Smokin’ in the Boys Room,” “Meet Me in the Bathroom” by The Strokes, Klymaxx’s feminine take on bathroom socializing, “Meeting in the Ladies Room,” or that famous Beatles anecdote about the time they shared a joint in the loo at Buckingham Palace, of all places.
But what about the other, non-euphemistic kind of business? It’s hard to believe, but throughout history, the bathroom has been an occasional site for getting work done and showing off in a perverse way.
The man best known for toilet meetings was none other than President Lyndon B. Johnson. Historian Robert Dallek’s biography, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973, describes Johnson’s “abuse of aides, shouting at them in public and calling them into the bathroom” while he sat on the toilet. In a C-SPAN appearance, Doris Kearns Goodwin described the bathroom meetings as “a matter of course, bizarre as it was.” Perhaps the most succinct take on the LBJ’s mixing of pee and politics can be found in a 2015 Gawker headline: “LBJ Was Obsessed With His Dick.”
The idea of the bathroom meeting carries a whiff of Mad Men-era male chauvinism. A questionable, potentially abusive method of conducting business (imagine the embarrassment of being summoned to see your boss in flagrante and having to pretend everything’s fine), it nonetheless says something about the stature of its perpetrator. If you can get away with inviting subordinates to your bathroom, you might not be the nicest person, but you’re certainly powerful.
Another famous proponent of the bathroom meeting was former Manchester United soccer manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who used his ensuite bathroom for meetings with various coaches as he sat atop his “throne.” As the hosts of the Totally Football Show podcast remark, “He was never off the job, even when …” It’s the kind of behavior that lends itself to tall tales, and even though it seems rooted in old-school masculinity, there are certain parallels with today’s increasingly topsy-turvy working world. Much has been made of how, thanks to the omnipresence of smartphones and the shift away from traditional 9-to-5 jobs for many workers, we’re now “always on the clock.” It’s easy to call or text from the toilet, and our current president’s sundry, weirdly timed and misspelled tweets might just be a particularly tasteless manifestation of Johnson’s scatological legacy.
Unsurprisingly, bathroom meetings are not recommended by the pros. As time management expert and former NASA employee Peter Turla summed it up over email to InsideHook, “There’s a time and place for everything, and having a meeting in the bathroom is NOT the place. Multitasking has its limits.”
Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick, founder and president of The Etiquette School of New York, feels similarly. “I believe business meetings should be held in business settings; and I have no idea why men would choose to meet in a bathroom for a meeting,” she says. There may be a historical precedent for unexpected meeting settings. As Napier-Fitzpatrick wisely points out, “The topic makes me think of Winston Churchill, who would dictate to his secretary from his bed where he was working.”
Still, bathroom meetings have found their way into contemporary corporate culture. A former employee at Amazon described the men’s room as “an extension of the office.” The aggressive nature of the online behemoth prioritizes work over wellness, and the fatal combination of too little space and too much work led to the bathroom becoming a “meeting room where you can piss everywhere.” With women being traditionally less encouraged to take up space and loudly assert themselves, it is somewhat more difficult to imagine women’s bathroom meetings being a thing — certainly a woman president, held to impossible standards for her history-making achievement, would be extremely unlikely to embrace LBJ’s unorthodox meeting style.
Tellingly, women’s bathroom meetings have only been publicized when they arise out of necessity. At a healthcare conference held by J.P. Morgan in San Francisco earlier this year, meeting spaces were so packed, with upwards of 10,000 attendees, that some women took to meeting in the bathroom. An article in Bloomberg described the odd situation thusly: “unlike the world outside the bathroom door, where it’s every woman for herself, inside there was a more pleasant, communal spirit” (it’s hard to imagine that LBJ’s infamous meetings being described as such).
The bathrooms used at the J.P. Morgan conference had “several marble vanities and plush leather chairs.” An elegantly decorated bathroom certainly makes the prospect of meeting there more palatable, and with the differences in men’s and women’s public restroom design, there’s less potential for indecent exposure. A fancy bathroom lounge, like, say, the famous ones at Radio City, would actually be quite a classy place to meet.
Where women might call bathroom meetings out of necessity, men, it seems, are more likely to revel in just how unnecessary it is to invite their various number-twos into an otherwise taboo setting. Johnson and Ferguson didn’t need to host bathroom meetings — they did it because they could, and derived some sense of satisfaction from reminding others of that fact.
But while it might’ve worked for the famous men in the past, mixing meeting and peeing (or worse) probably isn’t a very bright idea in the corporate climate of 2019.
As Napier-Fitzpatrick says, “I suppose men can sometimes be a bit unorthodox.”
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