On Responding to Sneezes

A few weeks ago, I sneezed at work.

I really have a way of starting these posts in such profound manners.

Anyway, I sneezed at work and one of my coworkers said “Tammy, are you a bless you kind of person?” And I was honestly taken aback, but also thought that was probably the most thoughtful question anyone had ever asked me at work.

I said yes, because in my mind, though the phrase bless you does have a religious background, it is usually said out of kindness and not out of trying to convert all sneezers to a certain system of beliefs. But I honestly still, to this day, cannot believe that that is the first time anyone has ever asked me that.

Have you ever been asked if you’re a bless you person?

The other night, after watching Clerks II (cause we’re that classy), boy (he did not approve of the nickname super stud) and I talked about saying bless you. I don’t remember what brought it up. I assume one of us sneezed. Boy comes from a Jesuit Catholic background, and I am the Jewiest of all Jews (not at all…though many of my friends think I am), so sometimes things with any tenuous connection to religious get us into conversations.

Of course, my first step was to tell him about this HILARIOUS thing I came upon on the internet (thanks The Oatmeal) one day about how it’s weird that we bless people that release a bunch of germs and disease into the air, but shun people that fart. Boy and I are very open with each other about farting. Mostly cause apparently I farted in my drunken sleep somewhere in the second month of our relationship, so y’know, I gave up then and there.

Anywayyyyyy after we laughed at the weirdness of that awkwardly for approximately three seconds, we moved on to talking about languages because, in case you didn’t know, I’m kind of obsessed with languages and linguistics.

My mom speaks seven languages, jealous. I have been bilingual since I was 8. I’ve been told I pick up languages pretty quickly, but I don’t think I believe that any more. After taking 6 years of Spanish, I took French and Arabic in college. I’m pretty sure I retained nothing of any of those languages. Well, probably Spanish. I also took a handful of linguistics classes. Definitely my favorite parts of linguistics are the cultural aspect, the historical aspect, and the psychological aspect. FASCINATING!

I totally remember how we got on the topic of bless you. NEITHER ONE OF US SNEEZED. I was telling Peter how at work I read about the root of our saying goodbye and how originally it was because someone shortened “God be with ye” to “Godbwye” and then someone misread it or something. Then we got to talking about other religious phrases in the English language and that’s how we got to bless you. VINDICATION.

I then told him I thought it was weird (and a little insulting) that English uses a religious phrase because there are so many languages that very elegantly (and logically) don’t. I pointed to Spanish and Hebrew as examples (both basically say “to health). I told him I assumed French was the same (apparently they are similar to Spanish in that there is a different response to every sneeze if you sneeze a few times in a row!). And finally I went to the German gesundheit. Neither one of us knew what the word actually meanth, he thought it kind of sounded like God Bless, and I said it seemed much more likely to be something along “good health” though as I said it I realized that good is like “gut” but I kept that to myself cause I didn’t want to proclaim my wrongness so quickly.

So of course, at a moment of slight boredom at work one day (at least I was learning something), I went and looked up both the meaning of gesundheit and what other languages say in response to sneezes. I was particularly curious about Arabic because it is very similar to Hebrew in many ways, but also very religious, so I wasn’t sure which way they’d go!

Here’s what I found (keep in mind, my main source is this Wikipedia page, I am confirming some of them through other research, but some just seem weird…also hilarious, read through them, you will laugh).

Out of the ~100 languages on the page, about half refer solely to the sneezer’s health. Less than 20% make a religious reference. There are a handful of languages that do both – but there’s a part of me that doesn’t believe this as it listed Spanish as one of these languages and I always learned that in Spanish you say “Salud,” “Dinero,” “Y amor.” Unfortunately, I don’t have friends that have been immersed in most of these languages, so I can’t confirm or deny this for sure.

Arabic is actually one of the ones listed as having both a religious and a health-related response. I asked one of my good friends who lived in Saudi Arabia for a while after college how people respond to someone who sneezes in Arabic. He said the religious one “ya rahmoka Allah” (meaning may God have mercy on you). I asked if he’d even heard sahha, and he said that was used more for burping. Of course, Arabic is a language spoken by many people across many different countries and cultures so this might not apply everywhere, but at least in Saudi Arabia it appears to be a religious response.

By the way, I asked him if he ever felt awkward when someone said that to him or he said it to someone, since he’s not Muslim. This was his response:


So how should you respond when someone sneezes. Honestly, I’d assume most people would have the same response I did at work and my friend had in Saudi Arabia. I doubt anyone has malicious or evangelist intent when saying “bless you.” If you do feel a need to be more aware, you can be like my coworker and ask. Or you can just go ahead and say gesundheit, it’s pretty acceptable in the US, though some people may just think you’re trying to be funny.

If you are the recipient of a bless you and you really really really really really really really don’t want to be, be kind, say thank you, and maybe clarify that you’re not religious and while you appreciate the well-wishes, you’d prefer not to be blessed. Keep in mind though, for most people saying bless you is a pretty thoughtless response, a reflex if you will, so if they keep doing it, don’t think they’re doing it out of spite or anything.




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