There's a cougher in the office and it's driving me mad!

Nothing seems to cure this malevolent hacking, and I'm beginning to think there's malice aforethought.

Published August 17, 2007 10:37AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I work in an office and a colleague sitting near me has a cough. Not just a cough but a persistent, neurotic, chronic cough that results in several coughing episodes a minute. He can't get through a sentence without a coughing bout. I'm a writer and find it increasingly difficult to concentrate as he continually clears his throat while talking on the telephone (he's a reporter) or when talking with his work mates. I've talked to others in the office who are equally annoyed by this incessant coughing.

He's aware of his condition and I know that he has gone to more than one doctor. One doctor gave him antibiotics (no improvement). Another suggested that it was acid reflux disease and gave him medicine that was supposed to clear that up (still no improvement). I've overheard him suggest to people on the telephone that it is allergy related and yet there doesn't appear to be any seasonal change, as this has been going on longer than I can remember. If it's allergies, there must be a medicine that will make it better.

I firmly believe that his cough is in his head and that he's not dealing with stress. I've noticed that it increases during the day and reaches a crescendo just before deadline on Friday.

How can I approach him and explain that his coughing episodes are starting to affect me in a way that is making me increasingly agitated. I reach a point some days where I just want to scream. How can I help him (and those who are also being impacted) realize that this condition is the result of a neurosis?


Dear J,

It can be said with some justice that though the job of an advice columnist is to dispense concise instruction for positive action, there often is precious little of that sort of thing to be found here, and when it is found here, it is often of the vaguest and most infuriatingly roundabout sort. Only a fool would claim otherwise. No, though an advice columnist by trade for lo now these near-six years, more often than not all I offer is a leisurely tour of the surrounding terrain, accompanied by the occasional sharp intake of breath.

The reasons for this are many and various, but suffice it to say that today is one of those days on which the reader is about to encounter a looping, loping, cantering survey of our green and hilly land, interspersed with the occasional offhand pointing-out of a distant landmark and a few impertinent musings.

Typically a cough excites alarm, sympathy and annoyance. As the cough continues, alarm and annoyance increase while sympathy decreases. More than that, we begin to think, remove yourself, sir, your coughing is getting on our nerves. And if it persists even further, we begin to diagnose the cough -- and the state of mind of the cougher.

But put yourself in the cougher's shoes. I can imagine a famous novel beginning, "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic cougher."

Can you actually believe that he is coughing on purpose, out of some malevolent design? Our mere ability to imagine such a thing puts him in an awkward spot, indeed. And yet he puts us in an awkward spot as well, doesn't he?

What would you do if a cough were to visit you unexpectedly and refuse to leave? What would we do? Would we try to go about our business? Probably. But it would be a little like we'd grown another head. People would definitely notice. They might not say it. But they would notice.

And we would wonder, in fear: How did I become a cougher? What happened? We would see the doctor and ask about medical conditions and he would not be much help. We would rule things out one by one. Doctors like to rule things out one by one. And then we would begin going through life as a cougher.

I wonder what chronic coughers do, if they congregate and talk about it. Ahem.

We are told, by no less an august authority than the Mayo Clinic, that a chronic cough can mean a miserable life.

Perhaps you would like to take out a subscription to the journal Cough, put out by the Airways Disease Section, National Heart & Lung Institute, Imperial College, London.

Maybe your office cougher would like some low dose, slow-release morphine to help with the cough. Things could be worse. If the cough did not abate, the cougher might be persuaded at least to share the morphine.

People on trains do not like coughers much, but they rate far above stinkers. In a survey of 1,137 rail travelers by the cough medicine company Benylin, coughers ranked No. 8 in annoyance, behind stinkers, seat-takers, loud-music lovers, smokers, smelly-food eaters, people with smelly breath and bag ladies, but ahead of snorers and paper readers.

There hasn't been much recent activity on this Office Coughers Forum, but perhaps a few enterprising sympathizers might want to reinvigorate it. I see that the latest poster, one "Peachey," dating from 2003, seems to have been permanently banned. No doubt some internecine warfare of Byzantine complexity claimed him. I hope it wasn't the latest post, which seemed rather mild to me -- "I don't know about where you lot are but here it sounds like a hospital ward with the amount of people coughing. None of them put their hand over their mouth and it seems the louder the cough the better. It's like a Florence Nightingale scene from the Crimean War. I'm coming in tomorrow with one of those face masks on -- like in China when they had that 'SARS' outbreak."

Doctors use the adjective "tussive" when referring to a cough -- from the noun "tussis," taken from the Latin. What a lovely word, "tussis." "A percussive tussis!" There is also the adjective of Greek origin "bechic," meaning roughly the same as "tussive." We know that Greeks and Romans coughed. "Tussio ergo sum." (How's my Latin? Sucks, right? It's been years since I conjugated properly.)

More thoughts about coughing we cannot ignore (these are the muttered impertinent musings): Coughing is a covertly hostile attack, disguised as disease, a bark that is a cry for help. The bark of presumed disease is a kind of Trojan horse. We say, "He had an attack of coughing." Coughing does indeed sound like an attack. Our reflex is to defend ourselves against it. It is the only kind of bark we can make toward which there is no appropriately hostile reply -- except to cough back, and that is prevented by the presumption of sympathy for disease.

What if the whole office started coughing at once? What if the whole world joined hands and coughed? We could move mountains!

The cougher, the attempt to expel. What is being expelled? A Snopes?

So to respond to it as though it were hostile is not so crazy. It certainly sounds hostile. It sounds like a bark. It is the sound of stifled rage. And in it might be buried all kinds of words that could not otherwise be said:

[cough] I hate this fucking job! [cough] A term has been invented for that: "coughlingo."

Incidentally, I have a cougher too, a neighbor who blesses us with his prodigal, wet spasms several times a day.

And does it not move us to consider the workplace itself, that hell of immobility, that sacred space underneath the courts of power where invisible lines of authority grip us, mute us, hold us bound in our chairs, where those "in the know" interpret visions and e-mails into a kind of gospel they believe will save them ... from ... what? The inexorable depredations of capital? Hardly! What I mean is, if you say to someone in your office, "I think I will confront this cougher," you are likely to encounter warnings: Oh, you can't do that. Oh, no, you can't do that. If you have a personnel department, they will probably tell you you can't do that. And, oh, I suppose, bereft as I am of sympathy in this late afternoon light, I suppose they have a point: It's just a cough.

There is much more to be said, but alas, the sun is going down and the light is growing dim; it will soon be unsafe to walk these rocky hills.

So until tomorrow, when this column will attempt a more lithe and vigorous concision: Adieu!

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