I sneeze and people feel obligated to reply. The more you think about that, the weirder it is. You are on an elevator with ten complete strangers, you sneeze and all ten race to beat each other to say “God Bless You”. You are on a subway, it is 3 o’clock in the morning and you are surrounded by several odd looking strangers who look like extras from The Warriors. They are taking turns leering at you with a detached sense of malice. You sneeze. A cacophonous chorus of disinterested voices mumble something that sounds remotely like “GesundheitGoblessyou”.
This pervasive but odd little social custom seems to insert itself everywhere without regard to circumstance. There are plenty of bizarre customs out there, but this one seems thoroughly inescapable. I have allergies and live in Atlanta, which means I spend a good portion of the spring testing the politeness of strangers. A sneeze never fails to draw some sort of reply. No one knows particularly why we do this. There are several old stories handed down about it. One story says that it was created during the Black Plague to ward off the spread of the virus. Another story claims that the custom began over the fear that the heart might stop during a sneeze. Yet another tale claims that it was a way of forcing the soul to return to the body after a sneeze.
Most of these stories are meant to explain the “God Bless You”, but there is less explanation for the “Gesundheit”. Why would a room full of non-German speaking Americans suddenly nearly crawl over one another to shout a German expression at someone who has just fired a blitzkrieg of germs at them? Politeness?….really?!?!?! Occasionally when one sneezes they are given a “hatchoo” by someone near them. Why on earth would someone imitate the sneezer? I find this response to be quite demeaning. To get how strange this is, imagine if a person burped and was greeted with a choir of fake burps in response?
I have only experienced this sort of weirdness in America, but apparently it is popular around the world. Most cultures have some word that means “to your health” that is thrown at the offending germ cannon. The oddest sneeze response I’ve come across are the Mongolians who say something that sounds like “burkhan urshoo”. This translates to “May God forgive you”. Not knowing much about the Mongolian culture, this leads me to believe that sneezing is serious business over there. It must be some sort of crime or something. God would be quite busy if he or she had to spend the better half of eternity forgiving sneezers. In Iceland, they say something that translates into “May God help you!” This sounds like a threat that is better suited to someone stealing your pet llama. The Tamil language has a word that translates to “may you live for one hundred years”. The sentiment of this is quite lovely, but the actual math becomes severely problematic. If I were to sneeze five times a day for one year I would have added 182,500 years to my life. Imagine the effects on the economy in many Southern Asian nations if they had to deal with taking care of scores of 2 million year old allergy sufferers?
No one particularly knows why we do it, but if your curious to see whether this custom is alive and breathing today, try sneezing in front of a room full of strangers. If you cough, people barely notice. If you blow your nose, most people simply go about their business. Sneeze and the world stands up and takes interest.