We absorb a lot of how we socially interact at an early age, from it not being polite to cough without covering your mouth, to saying thank you whenever people give you things like money or gifts. And, what do we do when someone rears back & lets loose a violent burst of snot & spittle? We say “bless you”. But why? What do blessings have to do with sneezes?
The ‘bless you’ phenomenon dates back to as early as 77 BC. While there weren’t any explanations given for it, it was obvious people tended to acknowledge sneezes as a sign of good health, deserving of some cheer. Greeks & Romans would follow sneezes with phrases like “live long” & “may Jupiter bless you”.
That positivity changed in the 6th century, though, with Pope Gregory I as Europe experienced the depths of the bubonic plague. Sneezing was considered a symptom of illness, so the Pope thought saying “God bless you” would add some extra insurance for what was, at that time, near-certain death.
Also, there was a myth that the heart briefly stopped during a sneeze; perceived blood flow changes were believed to cause a pause between heartbeats. So, folks would say “bless you” to ensure that the heart wouldn’t stop beating. Basically, it was a way of congratulating someone for not dying: “Bless you, Oliver…that sneeze didn’t kill you!” Some cultures even believed demons were transmitted during sneezes, so they adopted the blessing as a way of warding off evil spirits.
However it came to be, we’ve clearly adopted a blanket blessing policy for all sneezes. When people don’t say “bless you”, we think they don’t care about our well-being. One etiquette columnist even put it like this: it’s considered more rude for people getting hit with sneeze shrapnel to bypass a “bless you” than for the person detonating the germ bomb to not say “excuse me”. And we have the plague to thank for all those blessings.
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