Of all the changes in our social behavior that, regardless of this or that variant, has been shaping the new normal, there is at least one that I pray will become permanent: our newfound disapproval of coughing in public spaces.
Customarily excused as an involuntary physical reflex, coughing has long enjoyed impunity in our culture — a far-too-forgiving attitude that the present pandemic appears to have finally, and blessedly, brought to an end.
I say blessedly because, if we are to be honest with ourselves, few physical reflexes inflict a more distressing assault on our senses than a cough. The sundry sounds that a cough can produce — wheezy or hoarse, high-pitched or raspy, barking or crowing — are among the most irritating noises the human body can make.
Yet who, until covid, could begrudge anyone a cough?
In what might be the most celebrated rebuke of coughing in Western literature, the seeming absurdity of such a reprimand is thrown into pitiful relief. “Don’t keep coughing so, Kitty, for Heaven’s sake!” says Mrs. Bennet, admonishing her daughter, in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” “Have a little compassion on my nerves. You tear them to pieces.”
Mrs. Bennet’s anguished plaint is met not with sympathy but ridicule. “Kitty has no discretion in her coughs. She times them ill,” responds Mr. Bennet, mocking the very notion that Kitty could control the reflex.
The sarcasm Mr. Bennet wields so mercilessly at his wife’s expense also enforces the cultural norm that a coughing person is beyond reproach. If readers today can still laugh at Mrs. Bennet — a character Austen’s narrator famously dismisses as “a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper” — it is because so little has changed in our attitude toward coughing in the 200 years since the novel was published.
If anything, we’ve become only more forgiving, endowing the right to cough in public with a quasi-religious sanction that can turn a phlegmy fit into a veritable performance of piety. The reverence with which we treat coughing is underscored by the radically different status usually accorded to other bodily functions, such as belching, yawning, hiccupping or passing gas — functions that, while also considered largely beyond one’s control, are, in most circumstances, subject to social penalty.
The privileged status of coughing among bodily functions dates back centuries. In one of the first books of etiquette, “On Civility in Children” (1530), the Renaissance humanist Erasmus advised children to muffle the explosive sound of flatulence by faking a cough. The 20th-century sociologist Norbert Elias traced this piece of advice back even further to a popular 12th-century dictum, “Replace farts with coughs.”
But what if, contrary to our age-old assumptions, coughing was not always beyond one’s control, or, for that matter, always a symptom of illness?
A few years ago, a study that examined coughing and etiquette in concert settings confirmed what concertgoers have long suspected: Classical music performances elicit a disproportionate amount of coughing — more than double the normal rate, in fact. In trying to explain this finding, the study’s author concluded that “coughing and its suppression are to a substantial degree willful actions.”
Yet this insight has failed to resonate beyond the concert hall, where only performers or conductors occasionally dare to act upon it. Happily, the only fatality known to have directly resulted from a coughing incident at a concert hall occurred in a cartoon. In “Rabbit Rhapsody” (1946), when Bugs Bunny sits down at the piano to perform Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” and an audience member immediately begins coughing, Bugs pulls out a gun and shoots him (presumably) dead.
When real performers take action, they do so at their own peril, for they might make headlines, as the violinist Kyung-Wha Chung did when he chastised “the parents of a coughing child,” as the BBC reported. Describing the same incident, the Times of London’s music critic went further, writing, “With one shriveling put-down, a tetchy atmosphere turned toxic.” But even this is mild compared with how one headline dissed American jazz pianist Keith Jarrett for losing his temper at a coughing audience: “Keith Jarrett is Disgraced in Paris.” It is a testament to the bizarrely elevated status of coughing that these esteemed musicians — and not those who so rudely interrupt them — face censure.
Yet as the incident on my recent bus ride suggests, the impunity is no longer absolute. The blanket moral protection in which we have wrapped the act of coughing is wearing away. The coughing person is no longer unquestionably in the right.
It’s too bad that it took a global pandemic to make this happen. But if the threat of viral contamination has accomplished what generations of noise pollution could not, I’ll count my blessings. At the very least, the next time my nerves are rattled by an intrusive cough on the bus, I’ll no longer feel quite as ridiculous as poor Mrs. Bennet when I plead for some compassion.