Whether the result of misplaced guilt, a fear of being perceived as weak, or the paranoia of being labelled a lazy ne’er-do-well, right now up and down the country people are knowingly misdiagnosing themselves in a failed and pointless attempt to save face.
You did not have “the flu”. You were off for two days. Admittedly you were coughing and spluttering a bit before your time off, and you’re still dabbing your nose with a hanky today, but you did not contract influenza and then miraculously recover within a 48-hour period.
Flu is bad. Like, really really bad. It kills people. About 500,000 fellow human beings every year! On average it takes people between one and two weeks to fully recover, and the associated fever and muscle ache is usually so bad you’re bed-ridden for the majority of that time.
So how, Frank from Accounts, have you managed to contract such an abhorrent infection and deal with it in the time it takes to assimilate a Breaking Bad box set? Should I be calling the World Health Organisation here? Because they will be fascinated to study the man whose immune system has taken on the mighty influenza and twatted it in such a short space of time. You’re the fucking Wolverine of infectious diseases, Frank, revealing a superhuman healing factor hitherto unknown among your colleagues who thought your only other main skill was adding shit up.
Unless Frank… Unless you just had a cold. And don’t get me wrong, colds are miserable. I’d never begrudge a man who wanted time off from a manic working environment whilst battling the indignities of a runny nose, struggling through a sore throat, and constantly fighting the hack reflex. But you lied to me, Frank. You said you had “the flu” because you weren’t man enough to ‘fess up to having something as common as a cold. You think you’re better than that, don’t you Frank? Well you’re not. And you know what Frank? At this year’s summer party, I think I’ve got a pretty good idea who’s going inside the big wicker man we’re planning on burning…
This desperate need to justify a brief absence through illness, lest a heartless manager interprets this flagrant lack of commitment as grounds for a formal warning, has resulted in an almost universal phenomenon whereby any stated illness occupies a level several strata up from the actual symptoms. So a cold becomes the flu, a headache becomes a really bad migraine, and the squits becomes a stomach bug.
A particular favourite of mine, that users hope will explain away their truncated convalescence, is the phrase “mild flu” or its popular bedfellow “a touch of the flu”. As if there are variants of the H1N1 virus out there that are a bit shit, and don’t quite infect you as brutally as their more aggressive colleagues. By the same token there must be a bunch of people out there with mild HIV, or “a touch of the AIDS”. Yes, the same virus can affect people differently, but not to the extent that you can throw off influenza in the space of two days!
How refreshing it would be if Frank and the millions like him came breezing back into the office with an honest “Yeah, I had a cold – wasn’t serious but I felt rotten, couldn’t concentrate, so decided I’d be better off sleeping it off at home…”?
But no – the terror of being perceived as a lightweight who could have quite easily worked with a head full of phlegm forces the hand, and before they know it, they’re regaling colleagues with tales of a miraculous recovery from what to all intents and purposes sounds like the return of the plague.
It’s the same fear that makes the early morning call to the office all the more terrifying, and the reason most of us bypass work protocol and send a text or an e-mail instead. What if they’re judging me on the end of the phone? What if they sigh because they know they’ll have to do my work today or that I’m going to miss that deadline? What if they analyse the timbre of my voice and deduce that I’m not ill enough to justify this sick day?
So of course the ‘ill voice’ comes into play; that weak, pathetic croak engineered to remove any hint of joy or levity or working potential from your cadence. Regardless of the reason you’re giving – even if it’s an ailment that has bugger all to do with your throat – you’ll rasp out your apologies as if even the ability to speak is a gift of which your illness will soon cruelly rob you.
It’s time to man-up, people. Getting waylaid by a nasty cold is nothing to be ashamed of. But don’t, for the love of Thundera, call it “the flu”. Please?