Good manners and cold-and-flu season share an uneasy relationship, like spell check and Chaucer. Consider, for instance, the pale, disheveled gentleman - “a guy in that sweet spot of the hipster/homeless Venn diagram” - that the artist Andrew Pope said he and about 15 other straphangers stood next to on the F train a few winters ago.
Shaking and contorting, the man was drawing attention to himself. “Then, out of nowhere, he stood up and projectile-vomited everywhere,” Pope said. “It was like a gallon of corn chowder was sprayed everywhere. Some people got hit with it; they gasped and gagged and got as far away as possible. The guy announced reassuringly: 'I know how this must look: ”Oh, he’s just a pathetic junkie going through withdrawals, looking for dope and is dangerous or something.“ But I promise you that isn’t the case. It’s not as bad as all that.' He cleared his throat dramatically. 'The fact is I’ve got a horrible case of the flu, so there’s no need for anyone but me to worry.'”
Pope added: “Needless to say, everyone worried. And got off at the next stop.”
But it’s not only virus-bearing people whose behavior is causing others to look askance; in the face of a flu vaccine that is said to be only 23 percent effective this year, we healthy people, too, can be seen acting in ways that cannot always be described as cuddlesome.
“I’ve taken to pulling out hand sanitizer immediately after meeting someone,” said Cynthia Cathcart, the director of the Condé Nast Library. “Not particularly warm and fuzzy, but I prefer not having warm and fuzzy things growing.”
Asma Q. Parvez, who runs the style and fashion blog the Haute Muslimah, said, “I don’t love shaking kids’ hands or giving them kisses or hugs, especially when they’re all snot-nosed.” Given the times she has neatly dodged commingling with youngfolk, Parvez said, “I always wonder if I’ll offend a parent. And when someone insists on shaking my kids’ hands or giving them a hug or kiss, I always ask: Are you sure you want to do that?”
Others sometimes use the excuse of having a cold themselves (even if they don’t) to shirk intimacy. The director Michael Engler, who self-identifies as a “narcissistic germaphobe,” said: “When I’m in auditions, I don’t want to shake hands with every actor who comes in. So, rather than seem rude, I usually say, 'I’d shake, but I don’t want to give you my cold.'”
Another New Yorker said, “I regularly use the fake-cold excuse to not hold hands in a 12-step group end-of-meeting circle.”
We haven’t always been so squirrelly about the flu. Before the 20th century, anxiety about influenza was fairly muted, said George Dehner, an associate professor at Wichita State University and the author of “Global Flu and You: A History of Influenza.”
“It’s reflected in the nicknames for the flu in the past - the New Acquaintance, or the Jolly Rant,” he said. “In pre-20th-century medical history, among the many things that could kill you, flu was not high on the list. But then the Spanish flu of 1918 recalibrated everything.”
Once the Spanish flu embarked on its path of terror, Dehner said, people revived or invented forms of folk medicine. Some of these remedies or dodges would have had manners implications. “I’ve had people tell me that during the Spanish flu they’d take an onion and cut it in half, and leave it in their bedroom to draw all the influenza germs to it,” Dehner said. “Really kind of odd.”
He added that people concerned about contracting the Spanish flu would wear garlands of garlic in public. Here comes Aunt Mabel!
Today, we’ve moved beyond the strategic positioning and wearing of members of the aromatic allium family. But we’ve discovered newfangled ways to thwart infection.
Dehner said that last winter in Wichita, Kansas, he went to an office holiday party whose germaphobic host made all of the guests elbow-bump as a greeting. “Which was as awkward as it sounds, at a Christmas party,” he said. “It was kind of jokey, but it really wasn’t. The host didn’t shake anyone’s hand.”
Jennifer Ackerman, the author of “Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold,” said: “I had a friend whose father was a pediatrician, so she saw the world through this overlay of germs. She didn’t like to travel, and sometimes she wouldn’t leave her house. If she was seated next to someone on a plane, she’d ask to change seats by inventing some elaborate story about having cancer.”
Ah, modernity. The complications and social porousness of contemporary life make for a certain amount of questioning and doubt about cold-and-flu etiquette.
Can you give a co-worker a bottle of alcohol-based disinfectant? (Ackerman: “Yes, but you can’t make her use it.”)
At a buffet or family-style meal, can you fix a plate of food for someone who’s ill? (Ackerman: “That’s a great idea. And tell them they can’t have seconds unless someone serves them.”)
Can you confront grocery-store clerks who sneeze into their hands and then give you your change? (Ackerman: “This actually happened to me. This clerk had a full-blown head cold and put all my groceries in the bag. She’d rubbed her nose all over her hands. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to be rude. I knew she wasn’t there because she wanted to be there. I went home and threw away most of a $50 bag of groceries.”)
When any of us is in the thick of the flu or a severe head cold, it’s easy to allow the exigencies of illness to supersede thoughtfulness or CDC-worthy behavior. We lose our conscience. We become separated from our superego.
A July 27, 1902, article from The New York Times bears out this theme further. Titled “When People Sneeze,” it recounts the origin story, in many different cultures, of blessing someone when he sneezes.
A section about the Talmud runs: “It appears that in the beginning of the world men and women were so loosely put together that when they sneezed they were shaken apart, and thus were destroyed. As the years went by they grew more and more substantial, until at last they were able to sneeze without running the risk of immediate dissolution. When they finally began to realize that the usual dire results did not follow their sneezing, they were moved to exclaim, in surprise and congratulation, 'God bless you.'”
Let’s keep it together, people.