Etiquette Questions, Answered: Tricky Conversations
Should I Inform Visitors of a Recent, Contagious Family Illness?
Q. A member of my family recently had something contagious. Must I alert visitors?
A. I hesitate to share this story, even long after the fact, because of the social stigma. But I trust you, my generous and understanding readers. So here goes. About a year ago, my daughter, who is in the eighth grade, came home and announced, “Everyone at school has lice.” Then she scratched her scalp.
It’s funny how the mere suggestion of head lice sets off a chain reaction. I examined her scalp—OMG, there were nits!—and then she examined mine (clean). Within minutes, the bedsheets were in the laundry, the hairbrushes were in the dishwasher (on the heavy-duty “pots and pans” cycle), and I was on the way to the drugstore to get that stinky-smelling shampoo. As it happened, the lice didn’t give up without a fight, and so a couple of unsuccessful treatments later I turned to the professionals at Bug-a-lugz, an upscale delousing salon in Northern California, where we lived at the time. That finally did the trick.
Once my daughter was lice-free, we prepared to resume our normal lives. Well, until a few days later, when my daughter asked if she could have a friend sleep over, and I said sure. And then the phone rang: It was the friend’s mother. Here is a partial transcript of the conversation.
Other mom: “You have lice!” (Translation: Your house is dirty.)
Me: “No, we had lice, but not anymore.” (Translation: I feel dirty.)
Other mom: “I don’t know if my daughter should sleep over.” (Translation: I still think you’re dirty.)
I blame myself for this painful discussion. By not phoning the other mother in advance to inform her of our lice issue—and to reassure her that the nits were history—it probably seemed as though I was hiding something.
There are better ways to handle any contagious situation, whether you’re dealing with lice or bedbugs or even just a head cold. First consider the temperament of the prospective visitor (or her responsible adult), and tailor your preventive action accordingly.
For instance, is your guest the hardy sort, who might shrug off a threat? If so, a simple warning ahead of time (“Just so you know, we had lice. But—phew!—they’re gone now”) should suffice. Or is she a worrier? I have a friend who is part hypochondriac, part clean freak. When someone getting treatment for lice once visited her house, it sent her into a panic. She spent the next 24 hours frantically washing and disinfecting every surface she could think of—even scouring underneath the upholstery. This is the sort of person who will need special reassurance.
Offer her lots of information. Call your doctor (or exterminator!) to learn when the contagious period in question is over. Then pick up the phone. Say, “The doctor said it’s fine, because colds usually aren’t contagious after 10 days.” (Or: “The exterminator promised us the nits are gone.”) Then wrap up the conversation by graciously offering your friend an exit strategy: “While I’m confident everything is safe, I understand if you’re uncomfortable and want to postpone the visit.”
Everything should work out fine. After all, nobody at my daughter’s sleepover got lice—or has gotten them anytime since. But I admit my scalp still gets a little tingly when I think about it.