Photo by James Gathany/CDC
Here’s a cool thing. When you’re sick, or allergic, or something flies up your nose, and you spasm and expel mucus, it’s polite for anyone around you, including complete strangers, to call attention to it. In English-speaking countries they say “Bless you,” in most of Europe they say “Health.”
In almost every culture, the polite response is “Thank you.” As in “Thank you for calling attention to my embarrassing bodily function.” As in “Thank you for making me thank you while I’m probably still dealing with how something inside me is now outside me.” As in, “Thank you for alerting me that for the next three months, I’ll be having impromptu two-line conversations with strangers, because my body thinks flowers want to kill it.”
I’m not being a prig here! Western culture has spent the last few years coming to an agreement that maybe we could all stand to comment a little less on each other in public, especially on things people can’t control. Really what other rule of etiquette calls for everyone to rush to say something in response to a bodily function? And before you give me something snide about bodily functions originating below the waist, I will only accept phrases that the Queen of England would say to a visiting dignitary, on camera. There are none, other than “Bless you.”
What makes sneezing so special? Nothing. I’ll tell you why nothing, because sneezing has an Irish twin: coughing. It’s just as infectious, just as disruptive, just as varied in its causes. And what do you do when someone coughs? If you’re polite, nothing. Unless they’re coughing repeatedly, in which case you might discreetly ask if they’re okay.
If the cough is egregious, you might expect the cougher to say “excuse me,” but you’re probably fine if they don’t. You’ll expect them to stifle the cough to the best of their ability, and maybe wash their hand after — see, we have plenty of etiquette around coughing, and none of it requires everyone calling attention to the cough. Why would it? Etiquette is about making people feel comfortable.
You probably believe, as I did until three minutes ago, that “Bless you” was originally intended to ward off demons from entering the body. But there’s no reliable evidence for this story, according to the first Google result for history of bless you. There is written record of people saying “Bless you” as early as A.D. 150, when Rome was still feeding Christians to lions. So if the phrase is about gods and demons, it’s about pagan ones.
There’s no reliable evidence for any origin of “Bless you.” We don’t actually know how we started, but we haven’t stopped, centuries after giving up other ancient customs, like ritual sacrifice or witch trials. And I’d really like to stop.
I know I’m not alone. Or I bet I’m not alone. I’d really like to not be alone on this, guys. And I suspect, given the kind of people who tend to deliver the public “Bless you,” and the kind who don’t, that most of us would happily abandon the custom.
But no one (except probably Ricky Gervais) wants to be the first to stop. We don’t want to be the rude one. We’re waiting for some high-profile figure to lead the charge, the way JFK gave men permission to stop wearing hats. Well don’t hold your breath, because JFK didn’t actually start the hatless trend, according to the first Google result for jfk hats.
But “Bless you” and “Health!” are not universal. In China, Japan, and Korea, it’s customary to ignore a sneeze. The Japanese used to say “You see death!” but they gave it up eons ago, according to the first Google result for japan sneeze???. Billions of human beings live perfectly well without telling each other “I heard you sneeze.” The rest of us can too.
So start now. Let’s make a pact, right here, to stop saying “Bless you.” In the moment, you might offend someone with your silence. If they object, you’ll politely apologise: “I didn’t want to call attention to your sneeze.” Hell, you can just pretend you thought it was a cough. That’s still enough to plant the idea in their head. Maybe next time they will do the same. And soon, when everyone has stopped saying “Bless you,” we can blame it on the president.