Flu fears usher in new social protocol
Contra Costa Times
Some are changing their social habits in the hopes of avoiding the H1N1 flu. Photographed in...
Eric Trujillo used to be blasé about using sanitizer to wipe down the exercise equipment at his health club. But now that he's wary of the spread of swine flu, the Oakland fitness buff is much more diligent about doing so — and much less tolerant of patrons who don't.
"They gross me out," he says. "If I see someone sweating all over the place and not wiping down, I give him the stink eye."
In Palo Alto, Kevin Chew no longer holds doors open for people because he's leery of germ-laden handles. Instead, he pushes doors in with his foot or elbow.
And at a recent funeral, Vallejo's Ange Taylor "offended a few people" by patting fellow mourners on the back — instead of offering hugs and kisses — and telling anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms to, please, back off.
Call it prudent, or call it paranoid, many of us are altering our daily routines and the ways we interact in our feverish attempts to stave off swine flu.
But in doing so we seem to have come down with a collective case of social confusion.
Consider the simple handshake. The ages-old expression of cordiality is now being bypassed by some who fear the germs that skin-to-skin contact can bring.
"There's definitely a heightened concern about how to act and react in certain situations," says Sharyn Kennedy Amoroso, a Bay Area-based consultant in etiquette and social protocol. "... We just need to get through this
together and find our comfort zone."
Those who are ill should not initiate handshakes, Amoroso says. Instead, they should politely decline and explain why. But things get awkward, she says, when people refuse an extended hand.
"If you're not sick, it is a little rude not to accept," she says. "If you're worried, you can always use sanitizer later or wash up before dinner."
In some situations, guesswork is eliminated because new rules are in place. Many churches, for example, have temporarily banned ritual handshakes among worshipers during services and/or the dispensing of wine via communal chalices.
"Certainly, people have missed these aspects of the service," says the Rev. Jim McGee, pastor of St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Walnut Creek. "But our golden rule is to be safe rather than sorry."
At Point Richmond's Our Lady of Mercy Church, where congregants are given the option, the Rev. David O'Rourke has noticed the number of people who drink from the communal cup is way down, "about half of what it used to be."
In some cases, the issues are literally hitting close to home.
When Concord's Julie Massie, who is pregnant and has a 2-year-old daughter, learned her husband was exposed to a couple of sick co-workers, she ordered him to wear a surgical mask around the house and to sleep in a separate room for six days.
"I felt bad, but this was before we got our shots and I was so paranoid," Massie says. "Both my daughter and I are in the high-risk group. The swine flu has become a big, ugly threat in my life."
Margie Ryserson, an East Bay marriage and family therapist, empathizes with such behavior.
"It's natural for parents, especially, to be worried," she says. "They worry every day over all kinds of little details, including what's in their children's lunches. So a public health scare, well, that's their worst fear."
In recent weeks, Ryerson has been privy to a number of incidents in which flu fears played a role. In one case, she heard from a family that became upset when a couple of kids weren't allowed to attend their daughter's birthday party as a preventive measure.
"There's a fine line," she says, "between handling a situation responsibly and doing something that causes too much alarm and havoc."
But where does one draw the line? Amoroso points out that the rules of social interaction are being rewritten on the fly, forcing adjustments everywhere. At the office, for example, employees who come to work sick are sometimes viewed differently than they used to be.
"In the past that person might be regarded as a real trooper for trudging in and doing his work," she says. "But now, that person might be the target of disdain, causing people to say, 'Please go home!'"‰"
While many believe some of the precautions smack of paranoia and overreaction, Ryerson says it's important to convey a message of tolerance in such times.
"If people are worried and fearful, that's their prerogative," she says. "This situation has tapped into their sense of vulnerability. If anything, it's taking a toll on them."