Azuh -- Ahhga --
Ah-Tchooey! (Whew!)
Carey Sherrill

Graphic Rule

April 18, 2001

This one started when the Christian Church taught that sneezing somehow exposed you to infiltration by demons (or so I was told). I think almost everybody has heard this or a similar explanation as a child. (Of course kids will ask -- this habit is inexplicable!) But most have simultaneously either assumed or been taught that to say, "God bless you!" when someone sneezes is polite -- or something. The German blessing "Gesundheit" means "health," and I consider it to be more benign -- that is, less in-your-face. But I still don't like it. Even if a case can be made that gezuntheit is secular, I still suspect that it harkens from the demon thing or something similar. Others will disagree. Regardless, nobody has ever explained to me the point of drawing attention to the fact that somebody just sneezed: this doesn't make sense except in the context of the fear of a demonic attack or some similar superstition.

There is no polite way of responding to this invocation, as the invocation itself is thoughtless, unconsciously bigoted (in a socially institutionalized way), and thus is itself impolite. I force myself to consider the act well-meaning but misguided. To me, drawing attention to the fact that somebody just sneezed (or coughed or belched or farted) is patently improper, particularly if you're off to the side and not directly involved in conversation with the sneezer. This act is only aggravated by the religious implications behind it. So whenever someone sneezes, I quietly and politely ignore the interruption and wait for them to recover so we can get back to the conversation.

My favorite response (the quickest, most effective -- and most poignant -- one that I've devised), is to note the rhythm of the way the individual says, "God bless you!" Then, I mimic that rhythm in saying, "No thank you!" and then immediately follow with a big, disarming grin. All but the most serious blessers of sneezes will immediately see that they do this out of cultural habit -- without ever having considered that many of us actually listen to the words, that we are not superstitous about it (and in most cases, neither are they). Most importantly, it conveys that the "God bless you!" invocation does make some of us uncomfortable.

Since I am a singer, mimicing the rhythm and "song" of somebody's invocation was probably easier for me to learn than it would be for some, but I think with a little practice, almost anybody can learn to do this spontaneously. I think were this bit placed into a popular film or a few television episodes, we could significantly reduce this meaningless, awkward, and sometimes embarrassing cultural habit.

Another thing I did for a while when I was younger: I taught myself how to enunciate the phrase "Oh shit!" as the sneeze itself. This took a little practice, but came very easily after seven or eight tries in private. If done right, it throws everybody off guard, and even the most rigorous blessers of sneezes will forget to respond with "God bless you!" It's very comedic, especially since you can make the case that it was unintentional and that the hearer must have a dirty mind if she or he heard "Oh shit!" in a gaud-damn sneeze. However, my official recommendation is that I do not suggest doing this -- at least not amongst folks who are likely to bless you for sneezing (unless you're a teenager or something).

Again, there is no truly polite way to respond to this intrusion, unless not responding at all is considered a response. In some cultures (particularly Hispanic cultures, in my experience), not responding to the invocation is considered impolite, so whenever I hear salud, particularly from a stranger, I'll at least give a nod and a smile.

The sneeze invocation puts atheists in an awkward bind: Do we say something? Do we thank the person? Is it impolite to ignore the invocation? My ideal is to remain silent after someone sneezes. I would teach youngsters that people used to think it was polite; but today, it is not really polite to draw attention to somebody's bodily functions.

-- Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Five years of service to people
     with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

Material by Cliff Walker (including unsigned editorial commentary) is copyright ©1995-2006 by Cliff Walker. Each submission is copyrighted by its writer, who retains control of the work except that by submitting it to Positive Atheism, permission has been granted to use the material or an edited version: (1) on the Positive Atheism web site; (2) in Positive Atheism Magazine; (3) in subsequent works controlled by Cliff Walker or Positive Atheism Magazine (including published or posted compilations). Excerpts not exceeding 500 words are allowed provided the proper copyright notice is affixed. Other use requires permission; Positive Atheism will work to protect the rights of all who submit their writings to us.