Q. How do you tell someone to please cover their mouth when coughing or sneezing? This is a co-worker that sits right next to me, and I don’t know how to tell her.C. V., Carrollton, TX
A. Engaging in a conversation which includes criticizing another person’s behavior is difficult. The goal is to correct the behavior and not to insult the person at the same time. One option is to address the situation when it happens. Right after she sneezes, say to her, “Loretta, I know it can be difficult, especially when a sneeze comes on suddenly, but would you please try to cover up? I’ve already had a cold once this year, and it would be really difficult for me to be sick again.” While this approach addresses the situation head-on, criticizing a person while a behavior is occurring can trigger an aggressive response. Suddenly, instead of the interaction being about her sneezing, it’s about you criticizing her. It’s even more problematic if your criticism embarrassed her in front of other people. Then, her back may go right up against the wall, and she won’t listen to a word you have to say.
A better approach is to talk with her privately. It gives you the opportunity to focus on the problem with less risk to your relationship. Have a solution in mind, but solicit her input as well. Your goal is to have her agree to a mutually satisfactory solution. “Loretta, thanks for meeting with me. I asked to talk to you about something that’s been bothering me. If the situation was reversed I hope that as a colleague you would talk to me. I can’t help but notice that you sneeze (cough) often but don’t cover up. I’ve already had one cold this year and it would be bad for me to be sick again. I’d really appreciate it if you could do me the favor of covering up when you sneeze. Would that be okay with you?” Ask the question so she has no choice but to respond. And then be sure to thank her for her cooperation.