As we approach peak cough season Sharon Walker seeks advice from a leading etiquette expert on the polite way to manage your germs
We are rapidly approaching the beginning of January, which is peak cough season, the month when, no matter how much vitamin C you’ve mainlined over the Christmas holidays, you’ll likely be spluttering into your handkerchief just when it’s time to go back to work.
And this is where you will face a typical dilemma of the coughing season: to soldier on spluttering in meetings, hacking into your handkerchief, or to stay home tucked up under your duvet only to lose hard-won brownie points with your boss.
New research from the cough lozenge company Jakemans, might help you decide. Or not. According to the Jakemans survey one in ten people surveyed have moaned about a colleague behind their back when they had a cough.
If you’d rather not alienate work co-workers a day in bed could be the answer that is, unless, you live with a woman, in which case you risk putting your relationship under pressure, since one quarter of women (24%) say their partner’s cough annoys them. Men, however, are more sympathetic, with more than one third saying they wait on their partner hand and foot when they have a cough and a quarter offering to take over all the household chores.
Public transport is another cause for coughing conflict, says the new research, with half of those surveyed complaining that coughing commuters splutter over them with little or no concern for their fellow passengers’ health.
Just this morning our editor Anna Magee asked a fellow commuter to cover his mouth.
‘Coughing season can be an absolute minefield,’ agrees etiquette expert Jo Bryant. ‘Year after year I see poor cough etiquette from spluttering through social occasions, to coughing over a colleague’s desk. We have a very British attitude to coughing. We carry on, we still go to work and even to the gym and still go around shaking hands.’
Bryant worked at the etiquette guide book Debrett’s for over a decade and now works advising foreign businesses on the nuances of English manners, if you’re invited to tea at the Palace, she’s your woman (you must stop eating when the queen does or risk a royal faux pas).
So what are her failsafe tips for navigating the coughing season without losing friends and alienating people with your projectile germs?
If you’re the one with the cough don’t splutter over your loved ones. ‘Etiquette is really just about how we treat other people,’ says Bryant. ‘With coughing etiquette, you have a duty of care to other people. If there’s anything you can do to suppress the symptoms, like sucking a cough sweet, or washing your hands, that will stop the spread of germs.’
2. Cough into a tissue rather than your hand
It’s proven to be more hygienic. ‘We’re getting more germ aware,’ says Bryant. ‘At school children are now taught to cough into the crook of their arm, rather than put their hand over their mouth, it looks a bit dramatic but it’s a definite improvement from when I was at school and everyone coughed and spluttered everywhere. The main problem with coughing is the poor cough hygiene. It’s about hand avoidance, so cough into a tissue. As the government guidelines say, then ‘bin it.’’ And be prepared. ‘A well-mannered commuter has anti-bacterial hand gel,’ says Bryant.
3. Hold the handshakes
Funnily enough, 83% of us will happily shake hands with someone with a cough, perhaps because we don’t realise this puts us at risk of picking up germs. But if you have a cough Bryant says it’s better to be honest and keep your hands to yourself. ‘If you’re the person who is ill have the confidence to say: ‘I’ve got a stinking cold,’ says Bryant. ‘So, I’m going to keep my distance and I won’t shake your hand.’ Your colleagues will thank you later.
4. Offer compassion (and a cough sweet)
If you’re faced with a cougher who is spluttering in meetings or coughing over their keyboards, it might be tempting to glare at them or bitch behind their back, but this passive aggressive stance can lead to tension in the office, according to the Jakemans research. The genteel thing to do is to ‘offer small acts of kindness,’ says Bryant. Like a packet of tissues or cough sweet perhaps?
‘Acts of kindness can be instructive rather than telling people what to do,’ say Bryant diplomatically. ‘The person that’s hacking isn’t doing it on purpose,’ says Bryant, ‘so we should be showing some compassion and consideration. If someone is coughing at work you could say: “Have you tried this, it works for me I hope it helps.” If their cough is causing irritation, one should step back from them or move seat, rather than being confrontational or rude.’
5. Stay at home – unless it’s a deal breaker
Whether you take the week off will depend on your job says Bryant. ‘If you have a job where you can easily work at home it makes sense to work there, but if you’re going to be signing a multi-million pound deal with someone who has just flown in from China, then it makes more sense to turn up. Just wash your hands and have a cough sweet to suppress the symptoms.’ And if you’ve taken time off don’t come back to work until you’ve recovered or you still risk spreading germs.
Don’t be afraid to say ‘No’ to Christmas drinks. ‘Although it’s tempting battle on despite your symptoms, dates and friends will not appreciate your coughing in company,’ says Bryant.
6. Try to suppress it
‘If you can suppress your cough, then do,’ says Bryant. The same goes for other bodily activities, like yawning, which other people might find offensive. ‘With any kind of gesture you shouldn’t be doing anything that is going to revolt otherst. Ask yourself: Would you like to look down the back of someone’s throat?’ The bottom line on coughing etiquette? Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.