Sure, you don’t want to catch the flu, but is that really an excuse for a pre-emptive elbow shake?
Sure, you don’t want to catch the flu, but is that really an excuse for a pre-emptive elbow shake?

We’re living through an epidemic of rudeness

People are fearful of germs, and I understand that.

The flu is currently taking prisoners willy-nilly and the citizenry is scrambling to evade capture.

But when introduced to someone new early this week, one woman was extra cautious, extending her elbow instead of the expected hand in my direction.

"Sorry," she said, by way of explanation. "I'm flu-phobic."

I found myself dumbly half holding her elbow and giving it a little wiggle, grinning because I did not know what else to do.

There are certain social conventions that are accepted almost without thinking. Shaking hands is one of them.

When you can't, you hurriedly explain that your hand is sprained or that you are really unwell and don't want to spread it. You don't virtually accuse the other of being a germ farm and put out an elbow.

When these unwritten, accepted rules, procedures and methods of social engagement are broken, the world seems to teeter momentarily off its axis.

It has been a bad week. A couple of days ago, I ordered coffee for a colleague and me, using my own reusable vessel and a takeaway model for him and giving my name for the order.

When I hadn't heard my name called after about 15 minutes, I inquired and was told the barista had said my name once and the coffee cups had been collected.

Some impostor had answered as me and was now skulking somewhere, sipping from my cup.

I felt like I had been kicked: the realisation was that startling. I had never considered theft in the daily thrust of the coffee crush, although the barista told me this opportunistic stealing occurred disappointingly often.

There are established social rules - civilities, really - we have come to expect. We stand on public transport to give older people a seat, we offer a guest a drink or food, we say thank you when someone gives us something.

So when a person leaves their empty shopping trolley leaning against your car's brake light instead of the trolley bay 15m away, or a friend gives you a massive wedge of cake after you have said "no thank you", or a person has made their withdrawal at the ATM but stands in front of it to finish sending their text despite the line-up behind them, discomfort prickles.

You know that feeling? When the guide for social conduct has been shredded?

But the gold star for social convention rebellion goes to a woman, clearly a battler and with a child in tow, who found herself a few dollars short in front of me at the bakery.

I stepped in, saying I had a few gold coins spare to cover her meat pie and bread. She thanked me, and the shop attendant smiled. All was well with the world.

But the feeling of community contribution and wellbeing was splintered when she swung around and looked at me directly for the first time and said: "You wanna chip in more of your change for sauce?"


- Dr Jane Fynes-Clinton is a journalism lecturer at the University of the Sunshine Coast.