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Epidemic etiquette

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From hardcopy headlines to top stories on internet news sites, we are inundated with swine flu warnings. H1N1 has infiltrated almost every aspect of our lives. Even with the vaccine hitting our healthcare providers' offices, the guidelines of who-should-be-vaccinated-when are shifting. With schools in session, offices staffed and upcoming meetings and conferences scheduled, polite people everywhere are wondering what they should be doing for meet and greet situations. How should you react when someone extends an arm and you would rather not touch them with a ten-foot pole? Yes, there is etiquette for epidemics. Here are some of the things you can do to protect yourself.

Just For You:
Wishy Washy ~ One of the best ways to prevent the spread of illness is to wash your hands with soap and water frequently.
Scan for Signs ~ As you are meeting with others, if their eyes are glassy, if they seem stuffy, if there is a cough, if they are running warm, then increase your body distance from them. Take care not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth after shaking hands. When your meeting has concluded, be sure to wash your hands.
Great Gels ~ Since a sink is not always nearby, carry a small anti-bacterial gel with you to wipe your hands.
Spic and Span ~ Take the time to clean your space, both at the office and at home. Be sure to wipe down the often forgotten items such as doorknobs, arms rests, light switches, keyboards, mice (the computer variety), telephones, cell phones, keys, steering wheels, refrigerator handles, cabinet and cupboard pulls, and faucets.
Be Aware of Your Body ~ Even if you have not knowingly been around the sick, listen to your body. If you are feeling run down, if you are sporting a fever, cough, or really runny nose, take the time to stay home and get better. You do not want to be known as the local Typhoid Mary.
Hosting or Managing Others:
Set a Standard ~ Whether it is regular office interactions or an annual gathering, communicate with those involved to set an introduction protocol. "In light of the highly contagious H1N1, we ask that meeting attendees greet each other with warms smiles and avoid hand-to-hand contact."
Provide Protection ~ Add to each reception area, conference room and lunchroom anti-bacterial gel dispensers to allow for frequent applications.
Encourage Cleanliness ~ Speak explicitly with the cleaning staff about wiping down frequently touched surfaces to avoid spreading germs.
Send or Stay Home ~ Communicate clearly with your staff or meeting participants that when they do not feel well, they should stay home. Set an example. If you are not well, stay home!
Be Ready - Backups ~ Have your contingency plans in place. Are your employees able to work from home? Do you have pre-assigned back-ups to take over critical functions? If not, now is the time to think things through and train those who will cover during an absence.
While certainly not ideal, in etiquette, we loath to leave someone with an extended arm hanging. The polite person will shake the extended hand and then remember to run to the restroom as soon as possible for a good hand washing. Should you decide to use gel, be sure not to do so in eyesight of the other person as you would not want to imply the hand you just shook was germ-ridden.

Jodi R. R. Smith is a nationally known etiquette expert and author. She is the president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. You are invited to email her your etiquette emergencies at