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Ladylike ways to deal with sneezes and sniffles

Is it polite to blow your nose in public

Having a nose like a dripping tap does little to make you feel like a lady. Etiquette expert Jill Kryston is back to answer another reader’s question. It just so happens this post is most timely as many of us have been suffering with seasonal colds, just as the rest of us reluctantly stride into allergy season.

Being a “Miss Sniffles” is never fun, and so we take a look at what to do when you have to blow your nose in a formal setting and still wish to maintain your dignity.

Dear Jill,

I do have an amusing etiquette question for you. I was once at a rather formal luncheon at a country house in the UK. It was Autumn and rather chilly and damp, so during lunch, my nose started to run. I obviously would not wipe my nose with the fabric napkin, or my hand, and instead resorted to discreetly sniffling, afraid to ask to be excused from the table to go blow my nose and offend the Hon lady of the house. What would be proper etiquette in this silly situation to not offend the hosts?


Is it polite to blow your nose in public

How to politely blow your nose, cough and sneeze in formal settings.

Dear Sarah,

Looking back on your embarrassing predicament must seem rather amusing now, but I can imagine how uncomfortable you must have felt seated at a formal luncheon table while trying to hold back sudden sniffles - I liked that you had the good inclination to use discretion. Had your purse been within reach, it would have been perfectly acceptable for you to pull out a handkerchief or tissue knowing that only two or three quiet puffs were required to remedy the situation.

As you noted, it would have been completely inappropriate to blow your nose, or even wipe your nose, on the cloth napkin. (A dab or two on a paper napkin can easily be overlooked.)  As well, it is considered poor manners to engage in a full nose-blow at any dining table.

Moving forward, if one or two little sniffs doesn’t take care of the problem, it is not out of place to politely request the use of the hostess’s lavatory; there is no reason to explain the details. (If you were in a restaurant, you would simply excuse yourself and leave the table.) Begin your inquiry with an apology in a sincere voice: “I’m truly sorry for the inconvenience. May I please use your lavatory?” A gracious hostess understands that an urgent matter is at hand if a guest must excuse herself during a meal. It is far better for a lady to call attention to herself in this way than to sniffle her way through a meal!

While we’re on the subject, coughing and sneezing while dining can pose a similar dilemma. Often these situations come upon us so quickly that there may not be enough time to move away from the table. Therefore, it is unnecessary to excuse yourself to perform either of these functions.

Whenever you feel a cough or sneeze coming on, cover your mouth and nose with a handkerchief or tissue. If there is no time to obtain one or the other, your napkin will suffice, or at the very least, your arm or hand, which is better than nothing in an emergency. Afterwards, say, “excuse me” and carefully refold your napkin, if one was used, so that the “germ infested” area faces towards the inside.

Of course, if the bout turns out to be a prolonged affair, excuse yourself until the attack has passed. I hasten to add, if you leave the dinner table to use the lavatory for any reason, be sure to thoroughly wash your hands before returning to your party.

Warm regards,

Jill Kryston

As an aside, Alena would like to add that it is her personal preference for a lady to carry handkerchiefs rather than disposable tissues when out and about.

Old handkerchief for wedding

My very own"something old”, on my Wedding Day. My Maternal Great Grandmother’s handkerchief.

The consumable paper industry have scared us off from using these most beautiful of accessories - proving them unhygienic, but I honestly believe that our attitude toward them needn’t be so hostile.

When did we become so fearful of a germ or two that we decided to allow the planet to take the full environmental impact of our “need” for even more consumable items?

Many are fearful of the germs that handkerchiefs harbour, I hate to break it to you but they were never intended to house huge amounts of bodily fluids anyway. Seeing as we are quite likely to blow our noses in public into facial tissues and then often “store” said tissue in a pocket or inside a sleeve for further use - if a dry piece is still available, (yes, I see this so often) - a handkerchief can at least replace the requirement for repeat purchasing tissues that contribute to de-forestation and increased carbon footprint.

Your tissue choices and how you take care of your bodily functions cast your vote for or against the environment quite considerably.

Plus, it’s more becoming of a woman or a gent to produce a fine piece of fabric, beautifully embroidered with an initial or emblem rather than a raggedy bit of paper housed in plastic. Be the exception.

Handkerchief Etiquette Tips

  • Collect and curate a pretty collection. You’ll be likely to use them more.
  • Wash and press them to keep them in good condition. You can always use an additional laundry sterilising detergent to wash them if you are overly concerned about germs.
  • Don’t lend them out. If you must, make sure it is spotlessly clean and declare it so. Don’t ask for it back. If it returns then great. If not, consider it a gift.
  • Once used, it comes out of your handbag immediately upon returning home and straight into the laundry bin. Replace with a clean one for use tomorrow.
  • Handkerchiefs are for mopping tears, catching sneezes and a drip or two from the nose only. If you require a “big old blow”, head to a private bathroom and take care of it there. With tissue!
  • If you borrow a handkerchief, please, return it clean!

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If you have any burning questions for our resident etiquette expert Jill, simply submit your question via email and it may be covered in a future finishing school lesson. Your details and name will remain confidential.

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