‘The equivalent of shouting fire’: coughing in theatres is new taboo

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Once considered simply a vital bodily function, coughing could be joining the list of unacceptably disruptive behaviours in theatres, along with excessive rustling, talking and using your mobile phone, as people have become more concerned about contagion risk due to Covid.

The change has been welcomed by BBC Proms host, Petroc Trelawny, who said one unexpected benefit of the pandemic that he has observed is that people no longer disturb performances in theatres by “coughing unnecessarily”.

In an interview with the Radio Times, Trelawny speculated that the stigma associated with potentially infecting others with Covid could mean that it will no longer be considered acceptable to cough in public, in a change that would be “particularly beneficial to music lovers”.

Trelawny said: “Now you cough in public at your own risk. Even before you realise what you have done, anxious sideways looks will have been exchanged, the seeds of doubt sown. Coughing has become the equivalent of randomly shouting ‘fire’ in a theatre – a gesture guaranteed to provoke fear.”

Trelawny, a classical music presenter who hosts the BBC Radio 3 breakfast show, said he had been alerted to the change in an email from a listener, which made him realise that the “cacophony of coughing” that used to disrupt moments of dramatic pause in classical music productions had disappeared.

He said he has enjoyed the quieter performances so far in this year’s Proms, the televised BBC classical music festival which started on 30 July and will run until 11 September, as well as on trains and in cafes.

Although he viewed coughing as disruptive to performances, Trelawny said he did not want the public to feel they ought to remain silent. “The sound of a large crowd clapping and cheering has been thrilling and comforting, a deeply reassuring part of a same-but-different Proms season,” he said.

Although theatre audiences are often characterised as stuffy, coughing has historically been considered an unfortunate but unavoidable impulse, and therefore acceptable in public. As theatre critic James Agate once wryly observed: “Long experience has taught me that in England nobody goes to the theatre unless he or she has bronchitis.”

But Simon Williams, a behavioural scientist at Swansea University who has researched the new social norms that Covid has introduced, said the pandemic has changed how we understand infectious disease, with coughing now stigmatised as a contagion risk rather than something to be sympathised with.

“Before, many of us were likely a bit complacent about infection-reducing behaviours. Certainly in the UK none of us wore masks and most of us might have ‘soldiered’ into work with a cough or the sniffles, despite the risk of perhaps spreading the flu or another respiratory disease,” he said.

“Whereas once a sneeze was greeted with a ‘bless you’ or we didn’t think much about another’s cough, now the latter has been seen as a symptom and a symbol of Covid and so it is likely to be met with some concern and anxiety by some for some time yet.”

Williams added that he expects that improved hand hygiene will outlast the pandemic, while surveys show people are prepared to occasionally wear masks in future, for example when they are not feeling well.

He cautioned that although overall Covid anxiety has reduced since the vaccine programme began, his research suggested there is a growing sense of stigma around visible and audible signs of infection, with one participant describing feeling like a “leper” when she coughed while out shopping, despite this being connected to her long history of smoking rather than Covid.

“People would report feeling like others were invading their personal space or would feel anxious when others near them were coughing. People not coughing into their elbows were seen to be not just rude but even a potential risk or threat to others’ health,” Williams said.

“We might anticipate more instances of anxiety or even conflict for some – as people try to work out the new balance between protecting personal space within public shared spaces, like shops, trains or theatres.”

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