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Dear Aunt Mary,

I friend of mine has a cold.  His partner comes on all sanctimonious about the use of a hanky to stifle sneezes and coughs – and even when he manages to whip one out in time, she is prone to roll down the windows of the car just in case.

I mean, if he dropped a fart, I suppose that would be appropriate behaviour, but a little “achoo” or “cough-cough” – surely that’s a bit over the top! Should he object?  Should he enclose his head in a humidicrib?  What?

Your nephew, Cy Nuss

Dear nephew,

I have to admit I find your letter curious, if not mildly disturbing. Your friend’s hanky etiquette is bad enough but the suggestion that your friend’s partner’s reaction was more apropos of a flatulence attack than a sneeze is preposterous as best.

Have you seen what goes on during a sneeze?  You do realize that the function of a sneeze is to expel mucus containing foreign particles or irritants and cleanse the nasal cavity. You do know that up to 40,000 mucus droplets are propelled at speeds of upwards of 160 kph during each and every sneeze. A sneeze may not be as odiferous as passed gas; but it is 10 times as dangerous to your health.

I do agree with you that by the time this semi-autonomous, convulsive expulsion of air from the lungs has traveled through the nose and mouth and been blasted shotgun-like across the interior of your vehicle it is already too late to roll down the window; but truly, what else is the poor woman to do? Is she expected to sit back meekly and offer a “god bless you” when every womanly instinct she has is telling her to throw open the door and leap to safety or slap you across your cheek and scream at you to cover your mouth? I would say that any civilized person would agree that the “rolling of the window” is a suitable substitute for these other, more natural, reactions.

One might expect you to know this already, Cy. One might expect that every child of Australia would already be well versed in all aspects of hanky etiquette; but clearly, in recent years, the advent of the tissue has lead to a steady decline in basic human civility. Perhaps only now, with our landfills overflowing with mucus-filled paper bombs, the world will finally bear witness to the hanky generation’s sense of sensibility.

All this is why is why I feel it is incumbent upon me to offer some suggestions for the proper execution of the common handkerchief during a sneeze or sneeze-like situation.

Always have a hanky handy. In particular be prepared while in confined spaces with other human beings. Some sneeze inducing situations you should be aware of include sudden exposure to bright light, a full stomach, high stress, spicy food, intense aromas and, of course, viral infection. Do note that if you are, in fact, driving a car having a hanky stuffed deep in your back pocket does not qualify as “at the ready.”

A hanky is not a prophylactic. Wrapping your digit in a hanky in order to shove it up your nose and dig around is never acceptable behaviour.

A hanky is not a trumpet. Never attempt to clear your nose in a public place by honking repeatedly into your hanky. Your mucus toots will never be the Brandenburg Concerto no matter how often you practice.

A hanky is not a work of art. Never. Ever. Open up your hanky to inspect the damage after a sneeze. It will never be Blue Poles so don’t even bother to check.

In fact, there is only one situation I am aware of where you can be in close proximity with another a human and not have to be concerned about the possibility of sneezing. That situation is while you are sound asleep. REM atonia is the only bodily state wherein motor neurons are not stimulated and reflex signals are not relayed to the brain so you and your partner as safe from a sneeze attack during this time. Then again, it is completely possible that external stimulants could cause you to wake up from your sleep and sneeze immediately upon waking so, here again, it is probably best to be prepared.

Finally, dear nephew Cy, there are a few things your “friend” could try the next time he finds himself at the wheel and does not want to abuse his partner with a mucus blast. Some simple preventative techniques include deep breathing to gently exhale the air his lungs would otherwise use for the act of sneezing. He could also try holding his breath and counting to ten or even crinkling his nose and keeping his eyes open.

However, should all this fail and your friend does accidentally let fly again in the presence of his partner; here is my suggestion:

Let her open the window. Apologize sincerely and then remind the partner that in Ancient Greece a sneeze was considered a favorable sign from the gods.  Your friend could then add that in many Asian cultures a sneeze means someone was talking about the sneezer. In China, Vietnam and Japan for instance, there is a superstition that if talking behind someone’s back causes the person being talked about to sneeze; as such, the sneezer can tell if something good is being said (one sneeze), something bad is being said (two sneezes in a row), even if someone is in love with them (three sneezes in a row).

Perhaps by offering a sampling of these fascinating facts your friend may be able to turn around the tenuous situation and make the whole disgusting episode seem somehow more acceptable. This may not be the perfect solution, dear nephew, but is far superior to making a comment like “Hey, at least I didn’t fart.”

Until next time, dear ones… nosce te ipsum.

Aunt Mary