Visiting The Very Sick

This month, it is my great pleasure to welcome Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting's very own Winston Jenkins as our guest columnist. For more information about Winston, please visit

At some point or another in our lives, most of us will find ourselves visiting a loved one or friend in the hospital. Usually, the patient will make a full recovery. But as we all know, this is not always the case. Hospitals are sites of great joys and great sorrows. Emotions on both ends can be quite stressful. The more stressful the situation, the more important it is that we employ etiquette.

The Waiting Room

Recently, I sat with a dear family friend while her husband endured a complicated, seven-hour surgery. When I entered the Family Waiting Room, I was a bit taken aback. There were people with pillows lying down on couches that were semi-comfortable for sitting at best. I turned my head to see others with their feet on a table as if they were watching TV at home. Ordinarily, I would say that these positions were simply not acceptable in public. Then I remembered that at Mannersmith we define good manners as always being situationally specific. It was clear that many of these people waiting for long periods were under extreme stress while their loved ones were in surgeries.

Guidelines for the Waiting Room:

  • Territorial Creatures ~ While humans are territorial creatures, we must make room for everyone. Do take care to make room for others who are waiting. Bags, books and feet belong on the floor once others arrive.
  • Chatty Cathy ~ Do understand that not everyone likes to talk when a loved one is in surgery. If your attempt at polite chit-chat is rebuffed, do not despair. Instead endeavor to find someone else who would welcome some conversation.
  • Recycled Reading ~ When you do happen to find magazines and newspapers in waiting rooms, they tend to be hopelessly out of date. Do bring your own materials... even thought you might read the same paragraph over and over. And consider leaving your magazines for the next visitor to read.
  • Pack a Picnic ~ Do account for your meals. While you may not feel like eating, it is important to keep up your strength for the sake of your loved one. Having familiar, healthy snacks and drinks may help to comfort you while you wait. Better to bring your own than to rely on hospital food, which may be horrid.
  • Beware What You Share ~ Clearly if you are ill, the hospital waiting room is a poor place for you to rest. Those recovering from surgery are in precarious health and your cold will do them no good. If you feel you are coming down with something, do come with a face mask for your mouth and nose. And hand sanitizer is essential. Do your best to keep your germs to yourself!
  • Inside Voices: Hushed tones are necessary to allow others to concentrate on their loved one. Do use your quiet voice so as not to disturb those around you when speaking with your fellow visitors, volunteers and nurses.
  • Time and Place ~ If cell phones are allowed, the waiting room is still not a place to speak. Do make cell phone calls out in the hallway so you can talk at a normal volume.
Shared Patient Rooms

While waiting, my friend and I chatted about the challenges of shared patient rooms. Clearly, private rooms are preferable, but not always an option due to limited space and costs. My friend was shocked at the complete state of oblivion demonstrated by those visiting the other patient in her husband's room. So, to pass the time, we outlined a few guidelines of how to be respectful roommates and gracious guests when in tight quarters. After all, a peaceful and relatively quiet co-existence is essential for the welfare and recovery of both patients.

Guidelines when patients and visitors are in a shared hospital room:

  • Gum as a Solo Sport ~ Do refrain from chewing gum when others are around. This is especially true if you chew with your mouth open and smacking. First of all, one should never chew gum in public (perhaps a topic for a future newsletter) and it is incredibly annoying to hear when one's "nerves are shot."
  • Rude Food ~ Perhaps this is not the best place to eat that garlic pizza! Remember the other patient may not be able to eat or drink and the odors may either make them nauseous or remind them of how very hungry they are.
  • Vibrating Visitors ~ Do be sure to put your phone on manners mode! If you must be connected and want your cell phone on at the hospital, do be sure to check the posted signs. If you must have your cell phone on, be sure to turn the ringer to vibrate. There are plenty of necessary noises already in the hospital; please do not add your annoying and intrusive cell phone ring to the din.
  • Stage Whispers ~ Again, do use your inside voice. Remember, not everyone is interested in listening to your conversation. Plus, your loud conversation could wake the other patient up when they need their much needed and necessary rest.
  • Physician's Privilege ~ Do keep the extreme details of your personal ailments to yourself and those who absolutely need to know.
  • That's Entertainment ~ Do keep your radio or television to an appropriate sound level. For shared rooms, often the cable providers will also offer earphones so you may listen at any volume without disturbing your neighbors.
  • Keep the Peace ~ Do speak to the nurse about how to accommodate the other patient. Typical topics include: the separation curtain, the window shades, the overhead lighting, and those visiting.
It is my sincere hope that you will not have to visit anyone in the hospital. Yet, I am afraid to say we may all be visitors at some point. Thus, when entering the pseudo-sterilized corridors of your local hospital, do be cognizant of the fact that other visitors and patients may be under far greater duress. Do be aware of those around you and how you might be a comfort for them with an encouraging smile, providing plenty of personal space for others, or offering to bring them a cup of coffee. As for those sprawled over chairs and tables - let them be. We can presume those nearest and dearest to the patients are physically and emotionally exhausted and in dire need of rest.