Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cough Up Some Consideration, Please!

Recent posts on workplace etiquette issues have opened the floodgates; questions are pouring in daily from Graces suffering the Gruntliness of others. In today's mail....

Dear Grace,

There is a woman in my office that has had a chronic cough for about 6 months. She attributes this to her medication, allergies and/or addiction to sunflower seeds. Let me tell you, this cough is loud and sudden, and in a quiet workplace, very disruptive. It is such a piercing cough that it makes me shudder every time I hear it. I have sympathy for her if she is not feeling well but she makes no effort to muffle the cough or walk away to the ladies room during sudden fits. I keep thinking she will get better and it will go away but it seems to be getting worse. How does a Grace deal with such a distraction?

Grace Says:

That does sound dreadful. I was in a book club with a woman who had similar issues and it drove me nuts--in fact, it contributed to my departure from the group. But you don't have that option at your place of work. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Express empathy and concern for the condition--couched in suggestions for addressing the problem: "Gosh, that cough sounds awful, can I offer you a lozenge?" ["the phone number for an allergist; a glass of water; chewing gum as a substitute for the seeds?"] This tactic has the dual benefit of potentially stopping the cough temporarily while also pointing out the disruption. Hopefully this conveys that you were so troubled by the cough that you felt inclined to try to deal with it, thus prompting her to take steps to do the same.

2. Confidentially speak to your HR person; this disruption does seem to fit into workplace comfort and productivity. While health issues are dicey in terms of confidentiality and discrimination, it is worth asking the question discreetly.

3. If all else fails, procure some noise cancelling headphones. You ought to be able to get your company to provide them since they seem to be necessary for your concentration due to conditions in the workplace that are beyond your control.

For a good laugh between coughs, have a look at how Kramer dealt with his cough. Gosh, I miss Seinfeld.
Good luck and thanks for writing,


Chris said...

I see where your advice is coming from, but it's a tad bit harsh. As a child, I had awful asthma and had an equally awful cough. No amount of water/cough drops/meds would help when I was in the throws of an attack. And it only made things worse when people would try to offer me something to "help." It didn't. I had teachers send me into the hallway so they could teach. It was embarrassing, as if coughing loudly in a group of kids isn't embarrassing enough.

I normally love reading your blog. And normally agree with just about everything, but this time I think you are making the person who is coughing the bad guy and your advice could make this person even more self-conscious than they already are.

Social Grace said...

Good Point, Chris. I am sorry you had a rough time with this as a kid and I thank you for sharing your experience, which makes a very good point. Since you do have a personal and meaningful perspective on this can you suggest what would be a reasonable way to address this? I'd be grateful for your Gracious advice!

Anonymous said...

A person is coughs because they are sick. Not because they like to cough. Honestly, just learn to deal with it. People these days have little empathy and consideration for others. Why don't you go take your work someplace else if the coughing bothers you so much.

Anonymous said...

So you have a cough...why not walk away and deal with the coughing fit somewhere where you do not disrupt the 20 people that work around you? Yes, we are sympathetic to your illness, condition, whatever. But why does common courtesy have to go out the window? If your cough is chronic and disruptive--step away until you have it under control.

Kate said...

I've just returned to my office and I can tell my neighbor is in her office. She's cleared her throat or coughed no less than 60 times in the last 45 minutes. She is not sick. She says she's fine, and won't accept a lemon drop, or lozenge. I think it's a nervous habit, and it drives me insane. She also reads her Bible aloud, uses the speaker phone and listens to loud music. Sometimes she sings aloud, too. I know I sound awful, but I am trying to work and it's very distracting.

The throat/phlegm clearing is very difficult to hear.

I try to block it with music or talk radio, but that doesn't really help.

We are not co-workers, but rent adjacent office space. Any guidance?