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You Make Me Sick 

Pleasant reprimands for cubicle coughers and train-platform trashers

Wednesday, Feb 12 2003
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Dear Social Grace,

How can I tell ailing co-workers to cover their mouths when they cough? For months, a poor fellow near me (yes, we are in cubicles) has been coughing. Now, as you might expect, but not expectorate, another co-worker right next to me has been coughing for a week. Go figure -- she probably got it from the first guy! How I wish those sad sounds were muffled. I'm really not unsympathetic, but ... please give some kind words to help me quell the germs floating over the cubicle wall!

Via the Internet

Dear Sympathetic Madam or Sir,

This fellow who's been coughing for months -- maybe someone at your office should ask whether he has seen a doctor? It sounds as though we may be talking about a health problem rather more serious than the common cold.

Now let's deal with your problem. First, we'll state for the record that people should not only cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze, but also use a handkerchief or tissue to do so. (The Social Grace Centers for Disease Control strongly recommend that you carry your own personal handkerchief; they come in handy so often -- from muffling sneezes and wiping noses to waving at departing lovers from a train platform and functioning as temporary tourniquets.) The "kind words" I have for you are these: "Do you need a tissue?" If your office doesn't stock tissue paper, perhaps you can invest in a few travel-size packets to hand out to ailing co-workers.

It's not very nice to tell people how to behave, as far as personal habits go (I do it all the time, yes, but only when I'm asked), and really, a Kleenex is meager protection against either the noise of a hacking cough or the spread of disease. (My doctor tells me that the best way to avoid catching a cold is to wash your hands frequently and vigorously, and to avoid touching your face -- nice habits, regardless.)

Finally, find out whether your company has a realistic sick-day policy (so employees are not compelled to come to work when they are ill and contagious), and if it does not, see what you can do to institute one. If a policy is already in place, speak to a manager about reminding your co-workers of it. Making sure that ill employees stay home is to the company's advantage: One employee out sick is a lot less expensive than an office full of them.

Dear Social Grace,

There is a woman at the train station who not only smokes on the platform every morning, but also treats it as her personal ashtray, flicking ashes and littering her cigarette butts on the ground. I find this highly offensive, and have taken to glaring at her while waiting for the train. I believe that she knows I am glaring at her, as she casually tries to hide the butt with her feet when I am looking at her. How do I confront this woman directly and tell her politely that the world is not her ashtray? My girlfriend suggested handing her a cheap fast-food-restaurant ashtray and asking her if she needs it. However, I can't seem to find this type of ashtray in California anymore.

Nonsmoker in San Carlos

Dear Nonsmoking Madam or Sir,

The best thing to do is assume this woman is unaware that smoking is prohibited on all local train platforms. Put away your glare for now (save it for later use, though; it may come in handy). In a friendly, sympathetic, unobtrusive manner (try "friendly" and "sympathetic" out on your girlfriend first, to make sure you're doing a believable job), say something like, "Excuse me, but smoking isn't allowed here." In Social Graceland, she would then say, "Oh, I'm so sorry. Excuse me," and you would say, "Of course. There's a trash can at the end of the platform." She'd throw her cigarette butt away, and there'd be smiles all around as the train arrived, on time, at the station.

I understand that, back here in San Carlos, this exchange is the best-case scenario -- but give it a try. Although it does seem as though this woman knows she's misbehaving, being approached directly and politely might just shame her into good conduct.

If this tack doesn't work, you'll have to decide for yourself whether you want to get more involved. I might just move away from the offending smoke on an open-air platform instead of causing a ruckus. (If someone is smoking on an indoor train platform in the Bay Area, you can safely assume that he or she is reasonably -- perhaps dangerously -- anti-social, and moving away or alerting the authorities is definitely the wise choice.) This strategy is called picking your battles, and I know I don't have the army I'd need to stop all the careless butt-tossers out there. If she's downright rude in response to your friendly help, though, you do still have the satisfaction of your glare.

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Social Grace

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