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Winner of the evolutionary etiquette ticket giveaway

Posted by Robin Abrahams  March 19, 2010 06:01 PM

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... is  "whoisdagney," for their logical, brilliant, and thoroughly disgusting examination of the human immune system! whoisdagney wrote:

It is pretty clearly rude to cough or sneeze in someone’s face. Not only is it totally gross to get sprayed with bits of saliva, phlegm, and whatever food and other matter that organism had been indulging in, but it brings with it the risk of spreading whatever disease caused them to cough or sneeze in the first place. Blech!

But what if we evolved to effectively share antibodies in our saliva and phlegm like new mothers share their defenses with a newborn through milk? This would actually be a pretty helpful adaptation, and certainly supported by group selection. The human race could pretty quickly stamp out new diseases, since the tools to fight them would be spread alongside the infection, along with inoculations against a variety of other diseases. It would be like a slow-moving, automatic, world-wide vaccination program.

With this, it would be friendly and helpful to cough and sneeze in someone’s face. We would probably do it automatically upon greeting someone, alongside, or even instead of, a hand-shake so that we don’t transmit the disease through other contact without the antibodies! It would be like smiling at someone because it would say “I don’t wish you any harm. I am letting down my defenses – in fact, here, share my defenses!” It sounds pretty gross, but people have done worse things to fight disease, like the use of leeches for bloodletting.

This simple change would alter a lot of other customs that we take for granted.

It would not be disgusting and completely out of line to lean over and lick your neighbor’s straw on the subway, like it certainly is now. It would probably just be a little intrusive and overbearing, like that chatty lady next to you who keeps making small talk even though you obviously just want to read your book. Maybe she did it in an insensitive and socially inept way, but at least she means well.

We wouldn’t necessarily need to use disinfectant wipes on the machines at the gym after using them, and would probably encourage as many strangers as possible to kiss our babies – who doesn’t want the best immune defenses for their child? I like to think that we wouldn’t go so far as to drink saliva straight, but I don’t think it would absurd for Vitamin Water to come out with a new flavor: “Immune Building Black Cherry, now with Vitamin C, Zinc, Anti-oxidants, and the Saliva of school children across America.”

whoisdagney, please e-mail me at so that I can arrange your tickets! Congratulations, and thanks to all who entered!
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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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