Sickness etiquette

Cold and flu season is here, and with it the moral dilemmas that define it. This time of year offers a unique glimpse into the social contract we all want upheld even as we seek to subvert it. The rules for how to interact with others while sick are usually written in erasable ink. A closer examination might help create a stronger human bond, or at least explain why your child’s teacher was absent today. Is it acceptable to attend a party even if you suspect you might be coming down with something? If so, is it your duty to warn others before touching them? On the other hand, is staying away from that party because of a sore throat a good enough excuse? How many days before and after a cold are you expected to avoid contact?

Some would never expose Grandma to their cold but wouldn’t think twice about sitting in a crowded movie theatre while sneezing through a box of tissues. All of us rationalize our choices without verbalizing them, creating at best an uneasy truce between expediency and moral relativity.

In the absurdist play of our collective expectations, everyone chooses his or her role. The Secret Agents never tell a soul about their cold, terrified of being ostracized or told to stay home and get some rest. They can often be heard saying, “It’s just a cough.” The Delicate Flowers treat every germ like a death sentence, chewing zinc and maintaining Vitamin C in a vain attempt to fend off that first sniffle. Their motto is, “If I can’t see the gun, it’s probably just invisible.” The Whistleblowers alert everyone to your sickness before you ever get the chance. They’ll be the ones scolding you — “Why should everyone get sick just because you want to go to work?” The Pastry Chef always shares the infection he’s cooking, often with a moist handshake and poorly covered cough. He’s often overheard saying, “I never get sick.” The Canary in the Coal Mine is the one who just came into direct contact with the Pastry Chef. The next few days are spent observing this poor soul and waiting to see whether the plague rears its ugly head. The Canary’s motto: “Why is everyone looking at me today?”

You might think there are other roles, like the Iron Fist (“I choose not to get sick”) or The Martyr (“I’d hate to get Mom sick”) or even the Victim (“Why did I get sick?”), but these are simply subsets of the main roles.

What plays out on the stage during cold and flu season is the Great Wheel of Illness Etiquette: Whistleblowers worry everyone’s a Secret Agent, Secret Agents spend their time denying they’re Pastry Chefs, Pastry Chefs infect the Canary in the Coal Mine, and the fear of becoming the Canary in the Coal Mine breeds the Delicate Flowers the Whistleblowers must protect.

Unfortunately, I chose to play the role of Teacher. Some parents (you know who you are) send their sick children to school regardless of what role they’re playing because they deal with enough drama at home and don’t need the additional theatre. Schools are germ factories even in the warmest of seasons, but packing hundreds of them together without fresh air for hours on end is a recipe for epidemics. Sometimes one longs for Whistleblowers.

Oh, and as for your child’s teacher being out today? Look to your Pastry Chef.

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