A Brief Analysis of Sneezing

A Brief Analysis of Sneezing

 

Everybody sneezes.  It's one of the involuntary responses of the body that falls into the basket along with coughing, shivering, and farting.  Yet sneezing is the only one that garners a public response. 

I sneezed at the post office the other day and 2 different people gave me a 'bless you'.  Two people in the post office blessed me.  Really, what they said was, 'hey you just sneezed'.  

I politely thanked them for their blessings.

I started looking into the roots of this phenomenon and it's fascinating how many people in the world - across languages and cultures - will respond to a comrade's sneeze. Literally billions of people walking this earth have been taught that it's polite to acknowledge when someone near you sneezes.  The response is typically directed towards health or a blessing from God.  But some cultures have more interesting ways of dealing with a sneeze.  

In Iceland after the first sneeze, you'd say "Guð hjálpi þér!", which means "God Help You!".  After the second sneeze, "styrki þig" (strengthen you); after the third sneeze, "og styðji" (and support).  If a person sneezes three times in the Netherlands, they'd say “(Drie keer) morgen mooi weer!" : "(Three times) the weather will be nice tomorrow!".  Then you have Japanese, Korean, and Chinese cultures, where it's customary to not respond to a sneeze.  

Interestingly, humans have no record of the true origin of the sneeze response.  Yet this cultural tradition managed to trickle down through our history for centuries.  

Most sources point to 590 A.D. and Pope Gregory I.  It's said that he commanded people to say 'God bless you' when someone sneezed to protect them from the plague that periodically rampaged through Europe.  By 750 A.D., the practice became widespread as a symbol of politeness.  

It's also believed that sneezing used to be seen as a person's soul temporarily leaving their body, opening them up for evil, devilish spirits to enter.  I've joked with friends that instead of saying 'God bless you', we should triumphantly say 'RID YOU OF YOUR DEMONS!'.  I'm sure this would turn a few heads on the subway train.. 

We're all playing a game here: this custom has been passed down through generations and generations of humans.  In our world today, it has no relevance to our lives, yet it's an ingrained aspect of our culture.  I've stood on crowded, silent, morning commute trains where a sneeze will pierce through the cabin and fire off a string of sneeze responses.  It's safe to say that in any public place - at a certain proximity to other people - someone will acknowledge your sneeze.  

I wonder how many cultural subtleties like this go unnoticed.  What are the other aspects of culture that we participate in without question?  

I'll be honest - for a period of time I chose not to acknowledge the sneeze, simply out of principle.  Though now I've come to appreciate the way that this peculiar, funny act of acknowledgment binds us together.  

 
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