“Ahhhhhhchoo!” goes the ill, snot-covered student, putting all of us in class at risk of sickness, and the following conversation almost always happens: a “Bless you!” and a “Thank you,” from the sneezer, if they are polite of course. Why do we have this exchange of words when someone sneezes but not when they cough? Why do we have it at all? I find myself asking these questions as I mindlessly mumble those two words on a daily basis, especially during the winter months.
In almost every language, there are different ways to say “bless you” to people. The tradition of the saying originally comes from Rome, when the bubonic plague was a major risk and the pope wanted people to pray more often. Sneezing was seen as an early symptom of the plague, so people would say “God bless you” after someone sneezed. Later, people believed that sneezing rid the body of a person’s soul and potentially exposed one to the Devil. There are several other stories and reasons why people say “bless you,” but the real question to me is why we still say it today. Obviously, we all know that we won’t be hit by the bubonic plague today, unless Ebola counts.
I say “bless you” because I feel as though if I don’t, people will think I’m rude or even worse, that I don’t care about their health. However, does saying “bless you” really mean I care? Or is it simply a way to conform to one of the oldest social norms we still have today?
If we are going to say “bless you,” let’s say it when people sneeze, cough, sniffle, or show any sign of a
cold – sneezing doesn’t deserve to get all the special attention here. It’s always amusing to hear the wave of “bless yous” after a sneeze in a subway car or classroom; the universality of these two words is quite powerful. It does feel almost gratifying when a stranger is caring enough to acknowledge a sneeze. What is even more awkward is when someone doesn’t say those words to you, as if they are saying “ew, you sneezed” instead.
Most of us were taught to say it as an act of proper etiquette, possibly because it’s almost a common courtesy nowadays. We have such sympathy for a person who might get us sick, yet usually many sneezers do not seem to have proper cold etiquette of their own. The countless people I have seen sneeze into their hands and then give high-fives, touch door knobs, or shake hands is practically sickening
So I will continue to say “bless you,” but all the sneezers have to promise to do their part as well. That means sneezing into their elbows instead of their hands, and frequently washing their hands on an hourly basis so germaphobes everywhere can rest assured.