Modern Etiquette: Dealing with flu in the modern world

Unless you've been hiding in a cave somewhere, you are aware of the flu situation

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If you think that etiquette is limited to which fork to use, think again. Etiquette is simply kindness with a heavy helping of common sense. That's why etiquette helps get things done, and it responds to what's going on in the world at any given time.

Unless you've been hiding in a cave somewhere, you are aware of the flu situation. Here are tips for keeping our lives as healthy and safe as possible:

1. Curb your enthusiasm. Whether it's flu or a common cold, we pass it along through human contact. So rein yourself in when you feel like hugging and kissing your family and friends, no matter how happy you are to see them.

2. Replace shaking hands with a pat on the shoulder or, better still, an enthusiastic wave. Then put your hands in your pockets. As long as your body language is friendly, the other person will not be offended. Remember, handshakes were invented as a gesture of friendship, a signal of harmony. Even though the handshake is the universally accepted greeting in North America, the flu threat mandates that we demonstrate our goodwill differently.

3. Carry copious amounts of hand sanitizer and use it. Offer it to others when you are at a restaurant or a meeting.

4. If someone gives you a sloppy kiss on the cheek, or anywhere else, wash it off as soon as you can without offending the other person. Get yourself to a restroom, fast.

5. Don't go to parties, or even to work, if you are feeling any flu-like symptoms. Consider this payback for all the times when we tried and failed to skip school as children by telling our parents that we were "sick." Isn't it ironic that once we grow up we somehow think we have to be half dead before we stay home?

6. Cancel parties and meetings, if you have any suspicion that bringing a large group of people together can be a health risk. Your guests will forgive you, as long as you reschedule once the scare is past. And it's relatively easy to organize a conference call to take the place of a meeting. Just be sure to keep accurate lists of who was supposed to be there, so you don't leave anybody out, when you do reschedule.

7. If you are travelling by air, see whether the airline policy allows for cancellation due to illness. Trip insurance might be a very good investment during flu season. You might invest in a portable ionizer to wear around your neck. They are supposed to sanitize the immediate surrounding air. And, as ridiculous as you might feel, it's better to wear a mask than risk infecting anybody else or becoming infected yourself. I think airlines should provide masks if they continue to make it so difficult to change flights. Another good reason to provide masks is that flights are so crowded these days changing your seat is nearly impossible.

8. Should you have allergies that masquerade as cold or flu symptoms, be sure to put others at ease by telling them that your sneezes are not contagious.

9. Think birthday cupcakes instead of birthday cakes. Everybody gets to blow out a candle, and nobody spreads germs.

10. Remember that it's more important than ever - and it's simply good manners - to keep ourselves healthy so that we can both set an example and not cause setbacks for anybody else.

11. Above all else, do not ask a flu sufferer whether he or she has gotten a flu shot this year. It will only compound the suffering.

(Mary M. Mitchell has written several books on the subject of etiquette, now in 11 languages, most recently "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Modern Manners Fast Track" and "Woofs to the Wise". She is the founder of executive training consultancy The Mitchell Organization ( The opinions expressed are her own.)

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