It's not surprising that most out-and-proud atheists avoid offering blessings after sneezes. And it's not surprising that some devout Christians are compelled to correct a "Bless you!" by responding "God bless you." Each group has spent enough time thinking about god and religion to not let this cultural custom slip by unnoticed.
But for the vast majority of Americans, "Bless you" is just what you say when someone sneezes. It isn't anything more than a polite phrase that has been hammered into their psyches by well-intentioned parents and teachers. In the interest of critical thinking, perhaps it's time that people examine the reasons behind this cultural nicety.
Origins of "Bless you!"
The practice of blessing someone who sneezes has been around for so long that no one is entirely sure where the custom began. There are many theories behind the blessing, all of which are based on superstition. According to Snopes.com, here are five of sneeze-blessings' most common origin theories:
- It was once thought that a powerful sneeze could expel a person's soul. Saying, "Bless you!" would cast a protective shield around the soul so it could return to the body before Satan had a chance to snatch it.
- A sneeze was the body's way of expelling an invading evil spirit. Saying, "Bless you!" would protect the sneezer from having the evil spirit re-enter his body.
- People once thought the heart would stop beating during a sneeze (it doesn't). Saying, "Bless you!" was a plea that the sneezer would not die.
- Some believe the practice began when people thought a sneeze was a sure first sign of having a deadly illness, like the bubonic plague. Saying, "Bless you!" was meant to discourage the disease from taking hold, or to offer good luck in the afterlife, as the sneezer would surely be dead soon.
- There's also a theory that a sneeze was considered lucky or a good omen. Saying, "Bless you!" would be a way for the sneezed-upon to return a blessing to the sneezer.
Is it rude to not say anything after a person sneezes? It depends. Proper sneezing etiquette includes many steps that people often ignore. When a person sneezes, he should always cover his nose and mouth with a tissue, or the crook of his elbow, to avoid spreading germs. He should then quietly say, "excuse me." If possible, he should leave the room before blowing his nose.
Consciously making a decision to stop the perpetuation of a superstition by staying quiet after a sneeze is arguably less offensive than someone sneezing without covering his nose and mouth. A case could also be made that it's more polite for the sneezer to say "Excuse me" than for those within earshot to say "Bless you!" but most people say nothing after they sneeze.
Alternatives to Saying, "Bless you!"
Because saying "Bless you!" has become such a cultural norm, many Americans--regardless of religious belief or non-belief--worry that it is rude to not respond to a sneeze. Yet the way to respond is largely a matter of personal preference.
For those who are undecided about the situation, there is often an uncomfortable "should-you, shouldn't-you" moment that follows any sneeze. Here are five "Bless you!" alternatives to consider:
- Say nothing at all. (See Sneezing Etiquette above.)
- Say, "Gesundheit!" which is German for "[to your] health."
- Say, "Salute!" which is Italian for "[to your] health."
- Offer a tissue, if you have one handy to offer.
- For Seinfeld fans: say, "You are soooo good looking!"
Some people are offended when others do not say, "Bless you!" after a sneeze. Others are offended by the superstitious or religious implications of sneeze benedictions. For atheists who want to politely acknowledge the social custom, a wish for good health (Gesundheit! or Salute!) is often the best choice.
What do you say when someone sneezes?