Public transport dilemmas in a head-cold ridden city

Subway travel

In the scale of life’s problems, the sound of someone sniffing might not seem a big issue. But, now that fingernails running down a blackboard is no longer a thing (thank you, whiteboards, projectors and new technology), loud and persistent sniffing is probably the sound I find most grating (followed closely by a whining call of ‘Muuummm’). It’s not always something you can avoid though. Maybe you have other niggling issues that you find repulsive and annoying? What do you do about it? Sometimes, as I was reminded this Tuesday morning, listening to a loud sniffing man on a packed train travelling to work, you have no choice but to stay and work out whether the problem is with the situation – or with you.

Let me set the scene. Normally I quite like catching public transport to work. I like the fact I walk to the station at both ends of the journey, plus I often bump into people I know and have those incidental conversations that make the day a little brighter. And I also feel a little bit of a broader benefit. Somewhat smugly, maybe, I feel somehow part of the ‘greater humanity’ (cheesy as that sounds). Train trips are usually a good start to the day. Except this last Tuesday.

On Tuesday, I was grumpy, as I was recovering from a bad head cold myself. Yes, I too was someone with a nose issue (so you’d think there’d be a degree of understanding. Hmm). I got to the station, stepped onto the train and then I heard him. In fact, I could almost feel the vibrations caused by his sniffing – he was so close and so loud. And these sniffs weren’t just isolated occurrences – no. These were very frequent, forceful, snorts. Shudder. I could hear others in the carriage sniffing too (we are a city inflicted with various forms of colds and flus at the moment) but no one else was quite as vocal about it. The train was jammed full, and once I was on, I couldn’t move further down the carriage (I was struggling to balance, with only a shared hand hold to grab), and nor could I get off and wait for another train, as this one was running express.

I tried to ignore it (no success), I tried to find something else to distract me (and in the process of trying to get my phone or book out, I lost my balance a couple of times, knocking into others and no doubt annoying them so I gave up), I glared and cleared my throat to attract his attention a couple of times (he had earphones in and didn’t look up from his own phone so that had no effect), and I debated whether to get a tissue out of my pocket and hand it to him.

But then I stopped. I thought that reaching past others, calling out to him with my tissue offer (as I would have to do as he couldn’t hear me otherwise) was a step too far. For one thing, I couldn’t guarantee the cleanliness of my tissue (the reason I had a packet in my pocket, plus a hanky, was because of my own slightly dripping nose, although I was dabbing it with my hanky in my one free hand and trying to avoid touching anything else with it). Plus, I wondered is sniffing actually worse than blowing? (which is what he might have done, had he taken my up on my request)

I admit, I don’t like loud nose blowing EITHER (I am clearly intolerant). I mean, sometimes you need to blow your nose, of course, but ideally, not in public. And what’s worse, in terms of hygiene? I felt this compulsion to check (which I couldn’t, because I couldn’t reach my phone). But when I did later, I was reminded that a) there are difference opinions about what behaviour is acceptable or not, and b) there are different opinions about what is a healthier / more hygienic approach.

In many cultures, the idea of carrying a used handkerchief is repulsive, as you’re retaining the germs within you (And thinking about it, it kind of is a bit gross, although the alternative of tissues can make your nose sore and it feels wasteful, and as long as you use only the one pocket, surely that’s better … and my self justification is coming to light. Stop, Helen. Carrying a hankie might be repulsive. Remember that). To avoid spreading the germs, it’s thought sniffing (or spitting it out in appropriate locations – not in a train) is better. For others of us, we’ve been brought up to believe sniffing is unpleasant. Maybe we’re both right? (or wrong?)

From a health / hygiene perspective, ideally, we wouldn’t be out and about spreading germs at all (and, guiltily, although I’d already had two days off work, plus spent the weekend mostly in bed, maybe I too should have stayed home from work for an extra day – even though I tried to avoid any direct contact, as I said). Blowing noses can run the risk of dispersing the virus. There are pros and cons to both – so maybe, in principle, he wasn’t wrong.

However. There does seem to be agreement thought that being too forceful in either blowing or sniffing isn’t good. It can impact nasal passages, spread the virus through the body, and – potentially, through sneezing / coughing / spitting (yuk to all), spread it to others. I found this handy little explanation (which I encourage you all to read if you are now wondering What’s the right way to blow your nose? ) But maybe he couldn’t help it. Maybe he was unaware. And maybe, a woman with a (slightly) dripping nose wasn’t the person to advise him otherwise (especially as she is no health expert herself).

So what did I do? I tried to assume that he wasn’t doing it with the intention of irritating everyone else on the train (although this took a while to believe because, really – he was THAT loud). I tried to feel sorry for him (and I did, slightly – I mean, I didn’t enjoy my cold either, even though I didn’t make such a big NOISE about it. I’ve written a blog post instead. Oh). I tried to make sure I stuck with not touching anything (to avoid spreading germs myself). I tried, in other words, to be less judgment, and to look after what I could control. Not perfectly, as you can see, but I tried. And it did distract me to a degree.

As soon as we got to a station when the train stopped and people got out, I moved to the other end of the carriage with relief. Because as you can hear from my whinging, I’m no saint. Trying to be understanding was hard work! Much harder than actual work (a place where no-one sniffed, all day, I noted. And where I seemed to recover to the point that by the end of the day, I felt a lot better than at the start). And, when I returned home after a fairly uneventful train trip, I shook myself a little, thought about my bubble world in which other people’s sniffing is a big issue for me (even though it really is very, very annoying), almost shared a message on some form of social media with my amazing insight (and decided that, even if other people were annoying, I didn’t need to be with a #blessed hashtag about head colds), and took myself to bed early. And things were much better the next day.

What would you do (or have you done) in this situation (or something similar that really irritated you)? 

Have you or your family been battling the winter colds? Any suggestions to overcome them?


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