Before people understood that the Coronavirus would become a global problem, the average individual might have deemed me a germaphobe. My long-time habits include using my elbow, never my fingers, to touch elevator buttons; keeping my hands off of public doorknobs, handles, and handrails; and evading coughers and sneezers to avoid catching any microscopic spittle that might be floating in the air. I could go on, but you wouldn’t continue reading!

Granted, I’ve always erred on the side of caution to avoid germs. Viruses have never lived long under my family’s roof. My only regret is having excessively used Lysol and Clorox as disinfectants while the kids were young. Better educated, I’ve since transitioned to nontoxic cleaners—well, until recently. Did you know they have lavender-scented products now? Watch out, germs!

With all that considered, a public hand sneeze rates high on my scale of gross behaviors.  

In January of 2020, before masks and plastic gloves became everyday accessories among North Americans, I was in a retailer’s checkout line, preparing to meet the next available cashier, when I watched him sneeze in his hands. I assumed he would excuse himself to wash his hands or at least use a wipe to clean them. He didn’t. Instead, he motioned for me to approach his station.

“You just sneezed in your hands,” I announced from ten feet away.

“It’s only allergies,” Mr. Sneeze replied. Neither apologetic nor defensive, his tone conveyed no big deal.

To note, Mr. Sneeze was a middle-aged man, not a teenager. Youth, however, would not have been an excuse for his attitude. He may as well have spit in his hands and said, “Come and get it!”

“I’ll wait for the next cashier,” I said, stepping back.

In case she hadn’t witnessed the hand sneeze, I turned to the customer behind me and warned her by plainly stating, “I’m waiting for another cashier because that man just sneezed in his hands.” Meanwhile, Mr. Sneeze was waving her over.

Apparently, allowing a stranger to spread his spit over the items she was about to acquire was no big deal. With her full cart, she pushed past me to Mr. Sneeze. Conducting business as usual, the two then bantered as he scanned and bagged her merchandise.

Just a moment passed before the next cashier was ready to help me. “That cashier just sneezed in his hands,” I informed her. She didn’t respond to my comment.

Had I entered the Twilight Zone? Did I need to speak Martian for people to comprehend my public service announcement? Was I the last remaining Earthling to desire zero contact with a stranger’s spit?

People’s assessments of what’s important in the moment decidedly impact what they will or will not tolerate. The number of individuals who’d now treat a stranger’s hand sneeze nonchalantly surely must have plummeted. Moreover, some percentage of people who were previously not all that cautious about germs will no longer welcome business handshakes and causal hugs.

Humans, nonetheless, are social beings. We lean in when we’re talking. We hug our friends and our family members. We kiss our loved ones. We cannot survive as loners. We need our in-person, face-to-face, hand-in-hand interactions.

As time passes, individuals will lower their standards. They’ll have their hands in and on all kinds of things yet neglect to wash them before eating with their fingers or touching other people and other people’s things. Besides hoping and praying that common sense and common courtesy become the new normal, we can each do our part in making that happen.

My best to you,

Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady

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