In one of the most poignant vignettes in her terrific book Quick Before the Music Stops, my former Town & Country magazine colleague Janet Carlson recollects a daily commute next to her husband—a man with whom she was very much in love. Even during his occasional bouts of sniffling. As the years go by and the ardor evaporates from their marriage, the sniffles that once elicited a thoughtfully given, just-in-time tissue now produce in his wife feelings of annoyance. Hurtling toward Manhattan side-by-side on a commuter train each day, Janet begins to ponder why, after all this time, her spouse simply doesn't bring a pack of tissues and clean his own nose.
I was reminded of that anecdote while watching last night's presidential debate. With the first of several very pronounced sniffs (magnified by his wireless and podium microphones), Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump startled the television audience and unwittingly unleashed a torrent of Twitter jokes and memes about his sudden case of the sniffles.
Regardless of which side of the political fence you are on, chances are you can relate to having a runny nose (or the hiccups...or an uncontrollable cough). It's embarrassing and absolutely no fun——particularly when exiting the room is easier said than done. Such was the case last night during a ninety-minute debate with no commercials and unceasing, close-up camerawork that refused to blink.
Chances are you won't ever find yourself presenting in front of a TV audience of 80 million. Nonetheless, what are some best practices for preventing your allergy or seasonal cold from distracting from your otherwise professional presence and remaining mindful of business etiquette? Here are my 5 tips:
Consider the Disruption
If your malady has the potential to become the focus and distract from your presence at an event (whether as a guest or as a host), consider canceling or sending someone else in your stead. Better you stay home and get the rest you need than attempt to soldier through it and turn in a poor performance.
If you've determined your're up to the task, be sure to give your body the help it needs. Don't be caught without a packet of tissues, cough drops, ample water, hand sanitizer and perhaps an antihistamine tablet. And please, please, please, save the hanky for sartorial flourish...not for cleaning your nose.
Acknowledge, Don't Dwell
If you are presenting in front of a group, defray the distraction by acknowledging the elephant in the room ("Please forgive my froggy voice...I'm just getting over laryngitis,") and move on. Making a bigger deal out of your temporary affliction will only further distract from your message.
Keep it Brief
If you're genuinely up to it and not contagious, commit to being at the function just long enough to fulfill your duties and then make a gracious exit. If you're making remarks, keep them short. (Few will mind.) If you simply need to make an appearance, see the folks you need to see and then leave. Don't feel the need to remain until the bitter end.
Play the Good Samaritan
In the same way your own first-aid kit can save you from embarrassment, be generous and offer your resources to anyone else in the room facing similar misery. A considerately provided cough drop or tissue is worth its weight in gold to someone muddling his or way through as you are.
As for the candidates themselves, come time for the next debate, I suggest both Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton sniff out their opponent's weaknesses and come equipped with a pack of tissues.