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girl sneezing (©Trent Chambers/iStockphoto)

‘Bless you’: Social convention or theological statement?

By Michelle Richards

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A person sneezes—a reflexive response involving the face, mouth, and chest muscles often triggered by the release of histamine. Then another reflexive response kicks in after the sneeze. Someone says “Bless you” or even “God bless you.”

This social custom has a long history in English-speaking countries, but what if you don’t believe in a divine presence who could in fact bless a person? What do you tell your children about what you say and what you believe?

Apparently there are various superstitions surrounding the origin of this traditional response to sneezing, including an ancient belief that a sneeze could release one’s soul and thus make a person vulnerable to the many evil spirits which they thought inhabited our world. During the Renaissance, the superstition circulated that the heart stopped briefly during a sneeze; by saying “God bless you,” people thought they could help keep the person’s heart from failing. Perhaps this gave rise to the traditional German response sometimes used in the United States, “Gesundheit,” which means “[to your] health.”

When my daughter asked me what she should say in response to someone who sneezed, I suggested she use “Gesundheit” if she was uncomfortable saying “Bless you.” She has heard me use that term quite frequently and is familiar with it. However, I have also been known to say “Bless you” to a person for whom I know that response is important. Since our response is intended to comfort or wish good health to another person, I figure that what I say should reflect what the person who is sneezing wants or needs to hear rather than my own particular thoughts or feelings. Just as I have written in previous blog posts about translating the wishes of others during periods of grief, when I sneeze and someone says “God bless you,” I usually translate their words so that I can recognize their politeness in following social customs.

“Bless you” is after all most often uttered automatically without much thought, like the social greeting “How are you?” It’s not as if the act of sneezing requires a theological reflection or discussion. But it does involve social convention.

Photo (above): ©Trent Chambers/iStockphoto

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