Why you should care
Because sneezes are nothing to sneeze at.
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A sneeze tickles your nose. You let out a round of rapid-fire sneezes, one after the other. This is the handiwork of the devil.
Ancient lore says that a sneeze summons dastardly demons, and a curt “bless you” will dispel all the bad mojo in one fell swoop. We say: Spare the stock phrases and holy water. It’s just a sneeze — a dribble of spit and snot, now splattered on the floor and all over your colleague’s shirt. Old wives’ tales notwithstanding, we suspect no demons would be especially keen on running up your filthy nostrils. It’s time we take a page from East Asia, where collectivist cultures consider it downright rude to bring attention to someone’s slimy sneeze. So, let’s not waste our breath on those hollow, halfhearted words that we say in the United States (“God bless you”), Brazil (“saúde”), Germany (“Gesundheit”) and just about everywhere else to the moon and back.
In Japan, Korea and China, no one can hear you sneeze. Or at least, no one seems to hear. Everyone just ambles on idly by and politely ignores it. No etiquette police here; no heartbreak over the unacknowledged sneeze. After all, there’s no need for niceties when a friend or stranger has just unleashed a volley of germs on you.
Todd Jay Leonard, an American-born professor at the University of Teacher Education Fukuoka with a Midwestern twang, learned that lesson the hard way. Leonard first stepped foot in Japan about 27 years ago, where people would sneer, snicker or be amused when he responded with a knee-jerk “pardon me” after he sneezed or a gentle “bless you” when someone else did. “I felt self-conscious when I sneezed when I first arrived in Japan because no one acknowledged my sneezes,” he says. Now a convert, Leonard predicts that the phrase might “naturally just run its course” for non–East Asians in the future.
No one is crystal clear on why we say “bless you” — it’s an old custom with unconfirmed theories and urban legends as to its origins. Some say it draws from superstitions: A sneeze is believed to stop your heart for a moment, so an incantation like “bless you” is a congrats for surviving near death. Others point to religion: “God bless you” will help release you from Satan’s grip when your soul supposedly separates from your body during a sneeze. However, it can be hard to break from tradition. For many, uttering a quick “bless you” is a deeply ingrained habit, says Jack Brown, a body language expert, plus an opportunity to show kindness to a stranger whom we otherwise wouldn’t talk to. “You can’t just be looking out for No. 1.”
Yet whether it is rooted in religious traditions, folk superstitions or merely social customs, we’re conditioned to say something when someone sneezes, and nothing when we cough, hiccup, belch or fart. In many ways, the rules of civil sneeze etiquette just don’t add up.
Silence is golden. At least, more golden than your violent ejection of snot.