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(Jonathan Hayward)
(Jonathan Hayward)

Judith Timson on pandemic etiquette

Don't worry, Dalai Lama. I'll still shake your hand Add to ...

jtimson@globeandmail.com

I have a killer cough.

Perhaps, in the interest of my social viability, I should rephrase: I have a substantial cough, the result of a seasonal allergy. When I go out, I worry that people may think I am, you know, sick. So I wonder, do I spend time explaining that my cough isn't contagious?

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Given that we're in the great pandemic era, I think yes. I owe it to anyone who might needlessly worry to set their mind at ease. It's all part of good swine-flu manners. The airwaves and Internet are filled with H1N1 etiquette tips and stories these days.

Have you weaned yourself off handshaking yet? Mastered a "bump" as an alternative greeting? The ladies on The View were practising the elbow bump with much hilarity the other day. And the mayor of Memphis, Tenn., recently greeted the Dalai Lama with a fist bump instead of a handshake after someone in his office had come down with the H1N1 virus. Despite some criticism that the mayor's gesture was "disrespectful," His Holiness seemed to enjoy it.

In the interest of staying healthy this fall, when the H1N1 virus is predicted to be at its most menacing, we are clearly having to rethink our social behaviour. But the advice is changing constantly.

First it was all about hand washing. Earlier this month, the federal and provincial governments rolled out radio and television ads promoting hand washing (for 20 seconds!) and reinforcing the message: "Stay home if you're sick." The U.S. government even enlisted Elmo, the adorable furry red puppet from Sesame Street, to star in a video urging school kids to wash their hands. (Shouldn't it have been Miss Piggy?) But now we are hearing that, despite those watery ads and the ubiquitous hand sanitizers - even at the grocery store! - hand washing may not be enough, that most of the contagion will be airborne. Does that mean even the air kiss can be problematic?

Furthermore, I've had only partial luck with this sneezing-into-my-sleeve thing. The other day, while clothes shopping I did just that, and then, mortified, wondered whether the already snobby sales clerk would notice there was snot on my sweater.

It's reasonable to ask whether we are all succumbing to a germaphobia that will one day seem as quaint as those depictions of domestic bomb shelters in the early 1950s and school kids hiding under their desks.

But I think, on balance, the answer is no. None of this stay healthy campaign is harmful to our psyches. In fact, the emphasis on citizens protecting themselves from the H1N1 flu virus may give us a psychological boost as well. Many people have felt dwarfed by recent global catastrophes - the pandemic, the financial meltdown. So anything that gives individuals a sense that they can protect themselves or direct their own fates is a good thing. Psychological immunity is as important as the physical kind.

Anyway, these public health campaigns are merely reinforcing what we should already be doing.

As for tinkering with our social etiquette, I remember being taken aback during the SARS outbreak in Toronto six years ago when a doctor I met for the first time declined to shake my hand in his office. "I think we'll dispense with that," he said, not unkindly. But none of us is surprised any more if someone politely eschews closer physical contact. We may, if anything, be too straightforward about wanting people to stay a germ's width away.

We just have to keep an eye on what is reasonable and prudent self protection and what is over the top.

The latter would include physically rearing back in horror from anyone in a social setting, calling out double-dippers with "Stop! You're endangering our lives!" as they reach with the same half-eaten tortilla chip for the guacamole or wearing a biohazard suit to your child's next school outing.

Prudent, if you have young kids, would be persistently monitoring the health of your children's friends when you decide on play dates, and planning ahead for the fact that this winter they will probably be staying home from school more than usual.

For now I will continue to shake hands with anyone who wants to shake hands with me (including the Dalai Lama). But if the pandemic ramps up, I'm on the lookout for an alternative social greeting that is warm and works.

Personally, I think it's ridiculous and weirdly hostile to use your elbow to greet anyone. How about clasping one or both hands to your heart and smiling, as if to say, "I'm so happy to see you!" That might not only keep me healthy, but make me the most endearing person in the room. Until I start coughing.

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