When somebody sneezes, most people respond in an automatic fashion with a “Bless You”, “Gesundheit” or something along those lines. The person who sneezes does not say anything immediately after sneezing.
As a noisy bodily function you could expect the person who sneezes to say “excuse me” as when one burps, but no.
We have made this response to a sneeze a part of everyday etiquette and do not pause to ask ourselves why we do it.
Where does this come from?
The response to sternutation has its origins in superstition. Long before germ theory, it was thought that our life was intimately connected to our breath, so when one sneezed, there was an increased risk of death. In other stories it was believed that the act of sneezing expelled a demon from the person’s body and the phrase “bless you” was said in an attempt to avoid the demon from reentering the person who had just exorcised himself through the power of the sternutation. Some believed that heart stopped when sneezing or that your eyes could pop out. Pope Gregory the Great during the 6th century ordered prayer for those suffering from the plague and a “God Bless You” for those that sneezed as a wish that they would not fall to the plague. And from this we acquired the custom.
This habit is so ingrained in society, that even though we know it serves no purpose and is rooted in ancient superstition, I find myself saying Gesundheit or an equivalent. Well, sometimes I can fight it back and remain silent.
I think that the person who sneezes should excuse themselves, just as they do after a burp.
Sneezing is a bodily function that most times serves the purpose of expelling a foreign particle that irritates the nasal mucosa, other times it can be the manifestation of an infection such as the flu or cases like photic sneezing (“sun sneezing”), just the expression of a higher sensitivity to visual stimuli or rarer situations like snatiation or even sneezing due to sexual ideation or orgasm (take a look at this great post by Dr. Mark Griffiths called “Sneezy does it: Sex, sneezing, and sneezing fetishes”).
What one should really do is face away from other people and sneeze into a handkerchief o tissue paper, if this is not available then into the pit of your elbow to avoid possible transmission of disease.
And in my profession sometimes I have to sneeze into a mask causing worry as what should be done. It is said that I should just sneeze into the mask facing the wound. And in light of this article, it seems the proper thing to do.
Some will think that wanting to change this bit of everyday etiquette is of no use and is an intrusion into other people’s customs. But this custom has no use, no reason to be. I don’t see many people throwing spilt salt over their left shoulder anymore and like that custom, saying bless you or Gesundheit to a person who sneezes is just acting upon superstition.
Let me start off by saying “I hate you”. I really don’t, but you are making my lapel look like a Boy Scout sash with all the different pins I must wear.
First of all, I consider myself a skeptic (sceptic for those of you in the UK) and a Freethinker. Atheism is only a subset of Freethinking and as has been said elsewhere, the dictionary atheist just does not believe in deities.
But what do I believe?
Well, in matters of what I believe you can call me a Humanist, Humanist with a capital H.
You can also call me a Bright (another one of the lapel pins I regularly wear).
Don’t get me wrong, I am an Atheist and proudly use my scarlet A.
You can be a humanist and believe in deities, but if you are a Humanist, then you are necessarily an Atheist.
If you are a Bright you are also an Atheist, the brights have a Naturalistic worldview free of supernatural and mystical elements, with corresponding ethics and morals.
“Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”
Just a few of the symbols I wear on my lapel (not all at the same time…I was just kidding about the sash).
We can use all the labels that we wish, but let us strive to be true Humanists with respect for the rights of others and not just have a nice declaration on paper. As a friend of mine always says “Being an atheist does not confer superpowers, you can be an atheist and also be a jerk”.