*sniffle* I haven't been sick in 15 years!
January 4, 2014 11:25 AM   Subscribe

What's the best way to respond to people who see colds and flu as moral failings?

A lot of folks in the area are huge health and fitness fans. Some of them are wild about alternative remedies and others like to talk about "fact based" info. But both kinds of people see getting colds and flu as a moral failing. If you get a cold or you're worried about getting a cold, these people will give you a big lecture on what you're doing wrong. And why they have a superior immune system than you.

Sometimes they make wild claims of not getting sick in 15 years even while they are sneezing and sniffling.

The reason why this is a problem is that these folks actually get sick all the time. And they are not considerate about spreading around germs because they don't believe they ever get sick. And they also believe that nobody else would get sick if they just did the right things like they do.

So they are not worried about things like hand washing, letting you know if they were just in close contact with someone who was really sick, and things like that.

It's also really annoying to get a big lecture when you're sick about everything you did wrong. Just because you didn't do their favorite methods such as using a megadose of vitamin C and you DO do things like washing your hands often and not touching your face and eyes, and regular things like that.

The other day I had to cancel plans with a friend because I had a cold and he immediately started saying "Well your immune system just must be low because you don't..." I told him I didn't have a low immune system, it was the first time I had been sick all year and it was a serious cold that had been going around to dozens of people. His reply was essentially? "You haven't been sick in a year, that's a joke, I haven't been sick in over a decade!" And I know he's sick right now.

What is the best way to respond to people who are kind of in denial like this and see common colds as moral failings?

My goals are to stop getting lectured about why they're doing it right and I'm doing it wrong, and get them to be more considerate about spreading germs.
posted by galenka to Human Relations (33 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
"Good for you!" [fake smile] Walk away. You can't keep somebody else from being an asshole.
posted by something something at 11:35 AM on January 4, 2014 [17 favorites]

Honestly, I've found that the best course of action is to refrain from engaging. Any questioning of their beliefs will be taken as an invitation to defend those beliefs, which are deeply held. If you're more frank--"I don't feel like it's my fault that I have a cold"--they're likely to get defensive, because they feel like their advice is given in good faith and is simply "helpful" rather than moralizing. Even if you and I know that this isn't the case.

The easiest thing to do is to thank them for their advice and change the subject.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:37 AM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

My parents see being sick as a moral failing. I spent my entire childhood being told that being sick was my own fault. As an adult, i've solved this problem: I just never ever ever talk to them about being sick. Ever. Even if they ask. I might say i'm tired, or busy, or 'had a long day/week'.

You're not going to get them to change their attitude, all you can do is change the conversation.
posted by Kololo at 11:37 AM on January 4, 2014 [9 favorites]

In the case of the lecturing friend, I would have just hung up the phone. The best way to stop an unwanted and unnecessary lecture is to cut the person off immediately and say "I'm not interested in your thoughts on this matter."

When they are sick and coughing snots on you while insisting that they are well, walking away is also an excellent solution. Say "sorry, I don't want to catch your cold! Hope you feel better soon!" and depart immediately.
posted by elizardbits at 11:38 AM on January 4, 2014 [7 favorites]

"Are you trying to make me feel worse?" or "Are you trying to make me feel bad/guilty about getting sick?"
posted by c'mon sea legs at 11:39 AM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

When getting lectured: adopt a glazed look on your face. (If you're on the phone, stare at the ceiling and think about something nice.) At the first instant you can get a word in edgewise, say "how nice for you" in a bland tone and change the subject entirely. Do not engage in any discussion of your immune system, their immune system, the immune systems of third parties, the nature of immunity in general, or the germ theory of disease.

When witnessing really egregious behavior that spreads germs (e.g. sneezing or coughing in someone's face): ask them to cover their mouth so that others don't catch their cold. If they deny that they have a cold, do not engage. If they belittle anyone who might catch a cold, do not engage.

When seeing evidence of their hypocrisy or delusion: shrug and chalk it up to the infinite expressions of human imperfection. (In other words, if you think they should refrain from getting hung up on what they perceive to be the moral failings of others, then you might want to consider refraining from getting hung up on what you perceive as their own moral failings.)
posted by scody at 11:40 AM on January 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

These are two problems, the first of which you can solve by guiding the conversation toward a variant of the following:

"Will you please just not do that?"
"What do you mean?"
"Lecturing me about my germs and immune system. They're mine. I'm living with them 24/7 all year round, and you can be sure that I've got plenty of time thinking intelligent thoughts about them without external reminders."

The second problem can't be solved. Stay away from sick people, even if they vociferously assure you, cough cough, that they aren't. Don't shake hands with people who are sick and don't wash their hands. You could of course make fun of them, but that's about it.
posted by Namlit at 11:46 AM on January 4, 2014

I kind of used to be one of these people (though without the lecturing component, that just sucks), and you know what? They're punishing themselves way more than you can. I used to beat myself up whenever I got sick. IF ONLY I HAD EATEN MORE LIVER AND TAKEN MORE COLD SHOWERS! But to everyone else? Nope, I never got sick!

Eventually, they will get sick enough that they can't be in denial anymore, and if they are reasonably mentally healthy, they'll realize based on this experience that contracting infection ≠ moral failing and hopefully become a better and more compassionate person.

In other words, what scody said. Ignore as best you can, and just remember that humans are really weird sometimes.
posted by gone2croatan at 12:15 PM on January 4, 2014

In the case of colds, I'd probably point out that many of the symptoms involved actually stem from the immune system's aggressive response to the virus, & not the virus itself. With that in mind, you could gently suggest that maybe your friends 'don't get sick' because their immune systems just aren't as strong as yours.
posted by littlegreen at 12:17 PM on January 4, 2014 [18 favorites]

It's a more widespread problem than just health. Consider the perennial pattern on the Internet of someone describing a s/w or h/w bug or problem. There's always one guy who sniffily insists that he's not having that problem, so the reporter must be some kind of idiot, or lying. Again, the insinuation is of some sort of moral failing - which never quite parses out, of course, because it's never actually a moral issue!

I think it's the same same issue with spelling or grammar nazis. To them, you didn't just misspell the word. The misspelling is indicative of something deeply wrong with you.

Whenever people are saying strange things about other people, I always look at what they're really saying about themselves. And it's pretty obvious what's going on viewed from that angle. The fact that I don't get colds, or wasn't victimized by a software bug, or never misspell "algorithm", isn't worth much. It's scant food for my sense of smug superiority. But if I can project a moral failure on those across the (trivial) point of distinction, it makes me feel like a moral hero. And those who crave superiority want two things: 1. to make their superiority as super as possible, and 2. to mask their true aim by making it seem all about you.
posted by Quisp Lover at 12:24 PM on January 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

"If you feel so insecure about your health and well-being that you have to make it into a competition every time you talk to someone about your health or theirs, you have a problem and I don't want to talk to you about it any more. Got it?"
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:29 PM on January 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

continuing from two above....

PS - I once read an article where some super model was explaining the secret behind her beauty. She attributed it to positive thinking, spirituality, and a sense of deep kindness. I threw the magazine across the room in disgust. No, honey, it's not any of those things. It's just good frickin' genes!

She naturally wanted her superficial, unearned superiority to reflect a deeper superiority...an earned one. We all want to be deep. It's human nature. And if all you've got is lustrous skin or immunity to colds, well...you go with what you've got.
posted by Quisp Lover at 12:49 PM on January 4, 2014 [14 favorites]

there have been studies about how the more successful people are they more they believe in the just world fallacy. you're seeing the same thing here - people who don't get sick (or don't think of themselves as sick) believe they're doing something to stay healthy and you're doing something to get sick. there is no arguing with people like this.
posted by nadawi at 1:03 PM on January 4, 2014 [32 favorites]

If they get on your nerves enough tell them you'd rather catch an occasional cold than spend your time narcissisticly obsessing over what goes in and out of your body and then walk away.
posted by mareli at 1:04 PM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

(nadawi: I envy your succinctness. That's exactly what I was trying to say in both postings!)
posted by Quisp Lover at 1:12 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Get less annoying friends.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:28 PM on January 4, 2014 [11 favorites]

Well, in your examples, depending on how fed up I was with them, I might say: I might not be sick right now if people like you were more mindful about responsible hygene.
posted by Good Brain at 1:44 PM on January 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

I HATE this!!! I hate being sick for this reason - tons of unsolicited advice and home rememdies, plus the usual clucking about "you're working too hard" or "it's your body telling you need love" (yes, I'm serious!)

I just cut people off in a joking/obnoxious way and say "I don't wanna hear it! I'm taking care of myself and I don't wanna give my cold any more attention than it deserves!" and then I go about my business.

My co-workers and team were a tiny bit put off (I think!) but really, my organisim and it's failings or processes (depending how you see it) are none of their business.

So, yeah - don't tell people, and if they insist, just be really upfront that you don't want to talk about it.
posted by Locochona at 1:55 PM on January 4, 2014

I have repeatedly cut dumb people like this out of my life, and my life rocks more every time i do it.
posted by emptythought at 1:57 PM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Illness as moral failing is a seriously messed-up belief that has its roots in antiquity, and a lot of Judeo-Christian ideas about punishment. It sounds like you are mostly experiencing one of its more harmless, though still annoying, manifestations. But it connects to seriously oppressive ideas about who is a worthy person and who isn't, and the Just World Fallacy that bad things (illness) only happen to people who deserve them (bad people), as well as neoliberal bootstrappy meritocratic ideas that, if you put in enough effort, you too can indefinitely postpone illness and death (send $14.95 + shipping to receive your secret solution to Eternal Health! Sorry, no COD.) There's probably also some fundamental attribution error at work here -- "When I get sick, it's just a situational case of the sniffles caused by X external factor, but when OTHER people get sick, it's because they are irresponsible/ignorant/constitutionally weakened by living a life of sin."

Offering annoying remedies/claiming never to get colds is one manifestation of these beliefs. Ableism is another, more serious, manifestation of the same core tenets, leading to shit like discrimination, forced sterilization, "mercy killing," and eugenics. Believing that health is proof of personal virtue and social worth is a serious moral fail, and I would honestly go out of my way to avoid people like this, even on the milder end of the spectrum.

If they are super important to you and you want/need to keep them in your life, you'll probably have to explain calmly why this upsets you and ask them to refrain from making such comments. "Sometimes when I'm sick, you respond by [doing/saying stupid thing.] I know you mean well, but when you say [stupid thing], I feel [annoyed/hurt/like you're blaming me.] Instead of giving me advice or blaming me for being sick, I'd like you to just acknowledge when I tell you I'm sick, and then either offer your sympathy or drop it." Let them talk in response, acknowledge what they say, but keep repeating your point as needed: "I hear what you're saying, but I'd really just like you to not offer me advice/blame/whatever anymore when I'm sick." You can throw them a bone by offering to do something for them: "In return, I promise to [stop insulting your shoes/calling your cat names/being chronically late/whatever you do that annoys them.]"

I would avoid telling them about their denial of their own illness - nothing good can come of pointing it out. They will only become defensive and shut down. They'll have to figure that out on their own. Good luck.
posted by Ouisch at 2:21 PM on January 4, 2014 [7 favorites]

"I better leave, wouldn't wanna catch assholitis."
posted by Jubey at 2:45 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Test their superior immune systems by coughing on them.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 2:46 PM on January 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

My mother is heavy into alternative medicine and one of those people. She actively cultivates a robust social network of people who share a similar mindset. These are invariably some of the sickest people around: severe health problems combined with dangerously delusional attitudes. It's sad and more than a little annoying at times, but I've found that they're generally well-meaning folks who have just gotten wrapped up in an extremely irritating cultural movement.

It's a lot like coming into contact with evangelical religious types; they're generally not trying to be assholes, but their culture and belief system encourages them to judge and proselytize. The only way to avoid it is to not engage at all. Any discussion or argument will just end badly. But if it goes that route, try to recognize that they're usually not trying to be a jerk. Most of the time this sort of talk comes from a place of (misunderstood) caring.
posted by Diagonalize at 3:14 PM on January 4, 2014 [7 favorites]

I have often seem this same thing in offices, where people pride themselves on never taking a sick day (but insist upon coming to work to spray their cold-inflected mucus on surfaces we all have to touch. Gee, thanks!).

You are not going to convince anyone who feels as you've described that they are wrong, unhelpful or unkind. This is a waste of your time and energy.

What I do is change the conversation, wash my hands immediately after, and mock them in my head.

To be utterly honest, sometimes that internal mockery spills out.

If I'm really honest, it's not just sometimes.

posted by sm1tten at 3:52 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Hmm, how 'bout that?" (Commence obvious boredom.)
posted by bunji at 4:27 PM on January 4, 2014

My husband gets sick more often than I do. But something to consider is that people have different definitions of "sick." I once said to my father that, except for his diabetes, my father in law is pretty healthy. My father gave me a look and said, "That's not healthy."

Similarly, it's rare that I take off work because of illness. But I get migraines on the weekend occasionally. Sometimes I come home from work and go right to bed because I don't feel well or am just super tired. And mentally, I'm not the healthiest. So maybe that's what's going on when people say they never get sick - they think of sick as having to be in bed all day or take time off from work or something else.

As for what to say to people, maybe just a "Thanks, I'll think about that." That's what people say to me when I encourage them to try yoga :-) It ends the conversation and makes the person you're talking to feel appreciated and heard. I don't think these people are malicious so I don't see any reason to be mean. But I understand if you'd rather be more assertive.
posted by kat518 at 5:42 PM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

With regard to the denial that they're sick, if you're up for the confrontation, you can say "you sound pretty stuffed up to me" or "yeah… sorry, that coughing tells me you're not quite right about that" but as everyone has said -- it's unlikely they're going to change their denial. It's a big part of their worldview.

As far as the blaming-you-for-admitting-you're-sick issue, that's much worse. It starts with the Vitamin C supplements and ends with the crazies who believe that if you just didn't think such negative thoughts, you wouldn't have gotten that cancer. This sort of thing gets worse, not better, over time.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:13 PM on January 4, 2014

"Yeah, being sick sucks. I wish all I ever got was a man flu like yours."
posted by flabdablet at 2:58 AM on January 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Well, I would examine why this bothers me. On some level, am I believing what they are implying?

Or perhaps I find myself deeply needing validation of how hard it is to be sick. This can come from within.

I think we believe in a Just World because it helps make life less frightening by giving an illusion of control. Knowing that most things come from fear helps me feel more compassionate.
posted by macinchik at 8:09 AM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

My goals are to stop getting lectured about why they're doing it right and I'm doing it wrong

Perfecting a dead-eyed, deadpan, no-expression silent stare has been very useful to me over the years in getting people to stop being obnoxiously lecture-y in my direction.

If you feel that's a bit too aggressive, nthing the suggestions to not respond, disengage and change the subject ASAP. "Illness is a moral failing" and "I never get sick" are important to their worldview and self-image - you almost certainly won't get them to change that, so your goal is to minimize the amount of nonsense you personally have to put up with. You won't get them to change their beliefs, but possibly you can get them to realize that trying to discuss this with *you* won't get them anywhere.

get them to be more considerate about spreading germs.

Again, in general, probably ain't gonna happen. But of course you've got every right to do what you need to do to cover your own ass during cold & flu season. Washing your own hands more often, minimize physical contact, keeping some disinfectant on your desk at work, putting off plans to get together with a friend who's hacking up a lung while claiming they're not sick, whatever. And if they give you grief about it, refuse to engage.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:42 AM on January 5, 2014

Call them out on their BS, while laughing at their faces. For real.
posted by Neekee at 9:24 AM on January 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Super obnoxious. What I would do...

1. On the lecturing issue, just don't engage. If you know who these people are, then don't tell them you're sick and choose not to be around them when you have a cold if at all possible. It's so not worth the energy (especially if you're already not feeling well!). If it's unavoidable and you do have to be around them, and they start in, just be as bland as possible ("That's nice" and "Hmmmm..." are your friends)...they are likely looking for a reaction, so don't give them one.

2. On the "get other people to stop spreading germs," honestly there is no real way to do this. For one thing, not everyone with a cough or sniffle is contagious. I have ridiculously bad allergies and asthma, which mean that even with medication, on a bad day my nose is dripping and I may be coughing up a lung. But, you are not going to catch asthma from me, I promise! So, you don't actually know what's going on with your friends' health any more than they know what's going on with yours -- don't assume you do know! Anyway, even if you could control your friends 100%, you could still never control the hundreds of anonymous people who touch doorknobs, train seats, chairs in a restaurant, books at the library, etc. etc. etc. etc. Obviously if someone is coughing in your face, you can politely move away, but overall the best way to deal with a germy world is exactly what you're doing (hand washing, avoiding touching your eyes, etc.)
posted by rainbowbrite at 5:04 PM on January 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

My stock answer for uninvited advice: "That sounds like it's working out really well for you."
posted by unstrungharp at 10:44 AM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

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