I’ve always been suspicious of coughing. Sure, there are times when you choke on something or you breathe in some fuzz and your body takes over to dislodge whatever the problem is from your windpipe.
And we all get colds and flus, and those bring along the infamous “tickle” in the throat that makes it hard not to react. But, in general, I always felt like most coughs could be suppressed by the cougher if they were out in public or, more importantly, places where the explosive sudden bursts of air from our lungs would be disruptive and annoying. Live theater, anyone? Coughs in an audience seem to be as contagious as yawns on a subway—someone gives everyone else the idea and suddenly no one can resist the urge to follow suit.
But can you actually control your unnecessary coughs? Enter the coronavirus. In March of 2020, a cough went from being a mundane but slightly annoying sound to a scarlet letter. At the beginning of the pandemic, we had such a limited understanding of the virus and how it was transmitted that for all we knew it could simply be emitted off the skin of an infected person like a burning aura of contagion. As a result, the last thing any of us wanted was to brand ourselves as being sick.
Almost overnight, the sound of public coughing disappeared. In our tense trips to the grocery store and pharmacy, you rarely heard anyone cough. Just to clear your throat sent anyone around you either briskly walking away or earned glares of “Are you infected?” We were all in self-preservation mode, and it seemed our usual sympathies and tolerances for the unwell had degenerated into a high-stakes game of “You’d better not get me sick.”
Sure, there are times when you choke on something or you breathe in some fuzz and your body takes over.
And so we all suppressed our coughing. To feel a cough coming on was cause for panic. We had to affect a zen-like calm in order to repress our natural reaction, like monks controlling their heart rates. And we did it. Through the manipulation of our throats, strategic swallowing, and sheer self-will, we didn’t cough. Once back in our apartments or cars, sure, we could let loose, but even then to cough in private was admitting that we may possibly have the virus. So, even in solitude we forced ourselves into silence.
We were doing what I always felt we could do if we put our minds to it. We were making the world a better-sounding and less contagious place, while the virus was making the world a truly awful place.
Which brings us to today. Even though we’re still under attack, not just from coronavirus variants but other viruses as well, it seems that the tide has turned in our heads. Public coughing is back and it’s less inhibited than ever. In restaurants, in bars, in stores, on public transportation, people are unleashing the most deep-lung bronchial hacks and don’t seem to worry about the perception of others anymore.
Does this mean that we’re getting over the PTSD of our lockdown years and learning to live with the germ-filled world around us? Or does it mean we’re simply back to not caring what other people think and giving in to our bodies’ every whim? It’s hard to say, but I have to admit, there’s something lovely about getting back to the soundtrack of normal life, no matter how occasionally annoying it can sound.
Paul Feig is a director, producer, and screenwriter of such hits as Bridesmaids, the 2016 Ghostbusters remake, and Freaks and Geeks. He is also the author of Cocktail Time!: The Ultimate Guide to Grown-up Fun