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Long ago, I worked in a large lab that was divided into several small rooms. For part of that time, I shared one of the small rooms with a graduate student from Taiwan. She was a wonderful person who taught me that many cultural norms are not normal in other cultures.

One moment stands out.


She sneezed.

“Gesundheit” I replied.

She stared at me, clearly puzzled. “What?”

You know, it’s a word we say when people sneeze. It keeps demons from running up your nose

If she looked puzzled before, now, she was clearly alarmed. I could see her sneaking furtive glances towards the door. Was she was considering the odds of getting around me and escaping?

I was stunned, too. Did I really just say that? Where did that stuff about the demons come from?

A little surprised myself, I explained, no, I didn’t really believe that bit about demons, it was something that I’d heard somewhere, and that saying “Gesundheit” was a habit I learned growing up. Oh, and by the way, the proper response was “Thank you.”

We both laughed and she thanked me for keeping the demons out of her nose.

These days, I work in a cubical, not a lab. More people are closer by and they sneeze more often, especially this time of year, when several people have been sick.

But I never know what to do anymore. My cubical neighbors don’t say anything when other people sneeze. Nor do they seem to worry about it.

But I do. Sometimes I say “Gesundheit,” sometimes I don’t and, even though they always say “thank you,” and I’m definitely not concerned about the demon business anymore, I always wonder if I’m doing something wrong or right.

What do you do when you hear “Achoo”?

Comments

  1. #1 Anon
    February 23, 2008

    I always say “Gesundheit”. It simply means “health”; I always thought that “god bless you” was the one intended to keep the demons away.

    Oddly enough, I sneezed in class a few years ago, and of course heard a chorus of “bless you”s. When I commented that I am an atheist, one student pointed out “we didn’t say who bless you–it could be Satan bless you!”

    I wouldn’t have thought that I would have to teach university students that atheists don’t believe in Satan any more than in any other of their gods.

  2. #2 chezjake
    February 23, 2008

    I too grew up learning to say gesundheit when someone sneezed, although my father who was polylingual explained that it was from the German for “Good health.” I still use it, and I find it much preferable to the “Bless you” that I frequently hear from those who are religiously inclined.

  3. #3 Maria
    February 23, 2008

    I also grew up saying “gesundheit”. My mind was totally blown when I learned that it actually meant something other than “hey, you sneezed”.

  4. #4 The Ridger
    February 23, 2008

    I say gesundheit. I also sneeze loudly, and in my old office a friend who worked across the room used to call me on the phone to say it…

  5. #5 Art
    February 23, 2008

    It might be a southern thing but around here the call and response is to say “Bless you” after each sneeze. Once the series of sneezes has finished a “thank-you” seems to be the proper reply.

    Growing up the story offered was that in earlier days sneezing was a sign that you had caught the latest disease and the Blessing was intended to give you divine protection from the evils of disease, presumably inflicted by some malevolent force like Satan or one of his minions.

    Of course now we know about germs and that blessings offer little, if any, protection but a blessing after a sneeze offers a gesture of concern and an amenity of an older and gentler southern culture.

  6. #6 Barb
    February 23, 2008

    I actually say “Mash you”. I picked it up from my best friend long ago. We are both atheists, so it doesn’t have the “bless you” connotations. (For a while I used Seinfeld’s “You are so good looking” line, but that takes too long to get out.)

    Oddly enough, most of the time when I say “mash you”, the sneezer says “thank you”, rather that “what did you just say?”. I’m not sure if they think they heard “bless you” or if they think it’s safer just not to ask.

  7. #7 Budbear
    February 23, 2008

    I grew up in an Italian-American home. “Salute” is the Italian equivalent of gesundheit and that’s what I say to this day.

  8. #8 DrBadger
    February 23, 2008

    In my culture we say “grow old” – meaning “may you have a long life.” I like it better than bless you since I don’t like the religious connotations either.

  9. #9 Lab Cat
    February 23, 2008

    I say Bless You, which is the English expression. I was told it was to prevent your sneezes turning into the plague.

  10. #10 Brian
    February 23, 2008

    I say “bless you,” because there is no sequence of words that I could utter that would actually influence the sneezer’s health, and I’d like them to realize that I’m acknowledging the fact that they sneezed. Bless you is a common-enough phrase, and I just love being thanked. That, and I usually have tissues, so if someone needs one, they’re welcome to it :)

  11. #11 HP
    February 23, 2008

    I’m an atheist, and I usually say “Bless you.” If anyone looks at me funny, I explain, “I have that power.”

    ——

    It’s purely functional speech, anyway. I don’t know an atheist who hesitates to say “goodbye,” even though it derives from the phrase “God be with you.” It’s a form of acknowledgement, like “thank you” or “you’re welcome.” Functional speech is important in every culture for fostering social inclusion, although it carries no more semantic content than a hearty pant-hoot.

    In much of East Asia, sneezes are like farts — they’re never acknowledged in polite situations. Saying anything after she sneezed would be like sitting in a departmental meeting saying, “Jeez, who cut one?” No matter how rank it smells, you don’t say anything.

    It may well be that there are occasions in East Asia that call for functional speech that don’t in the West, although I don’t enough to say.

    Frankly, I tend to be a bit alarmed when atheists act uncomfortable around casual mentions of God. It smacks of remnants of magical thinking. (Also, I don’t understand why some atheists lowercase or otherwise misspell “God.” Part of being an atheist is not being afraid to invoke supernatural beings.)

    On the other hand, I once had a great time with a theist friend, by constantly invoking the aid of Satan and his minions during a game of pool. “I call upon you, Satan, and all the powers of darkness you command: Help me sink this six ball in the side pocket!” “Dude, you shouldn’t joke about that.”

  12. #12 OmegaMom
    February 23, 2008

    It’s one of those geographical sayings. From what I’ve encountered, those who say “gesundheit” (like me) are from the Midwest; those who say “bless you” are from elsewhere.

  13. #13 Richard Simons
    February 23, 2008

    If anything, I’d say ‘Gesundheit’. Luna – I too had heard that saying ‘bless you’ was connected with the plague, just like the nursery rhyme. Ring, a ring o’ roses (the first sign, red dots on your skin), a pocket full of posies (to ward it off), atishoo, atishoo (next sign), all fall down (last sign).

  14. #14 Suicyte
    February 23, 2008

    Do you guys in the US really say ‘Gesundheit’ ? It is so cute to see one of our words (particularly one unrelated to war or anything like that) put to good use in a foreign language.

    As somebody pointed out, ‘gesundheit’ just means ‘health’, and I am sure that this is already an abbreviation of an older habit of saying ‘may you be in good health’ (which just takes too long to say).

    There are some other interesting cultural differences: I had no idea that ‘achoo’ is the sound of sneezing in english. Germans usually sneeze by saying ‘hatschi’ – the first part is quite similar, but at the end the two versions diverge. I would be interested to learn about the french, spanish and italian versions, or even the east asian ones.

    A nagging question of etiquette is, obviously, whether to say ‘gesundheit’/’bless you’ after the first sneeze, or if you rather wait for the end of the entire sequence (usually up to three in germany – are there differences too?) In some regions it is customary to say ‘gesundheit’ after the first sneeze, and if there is a 2nd or a 3rd one, you add ‘schönheit’ (=beauty) and ‘klugheit’ (=intelligence) later. Obviously, this is nothing official, more some kind of mocking between friends.

  15. #15 Mike
    February 23, 2008

    How about “Would you like a tissue?”, or “Sounds like you should take a day off”? Failing that, just accept that sneezing is a perfectly normal part of being human, and don’t say anything.

  16. #16 Opal
    February 23, 2008

    In San Antonio, TX a lot of people say “salud” which means health.

  17. #17 Scotty B
    February 23, 2008

    I usually just say “Gesundheit,” but for what its worth I think I heard Penn Jillette comment once that he likes to say “That’s funny” after someone sneezes.

    Another problem besides what to say after someone sneezes is how an atheist should reply to others after they respond to your sneeze with “Bless you” or “God bless you.”

    If they just say “Bless you” I see no big problem, but if they invoke god, should you say something about your non-belief?

  18. #18 fullerenedream
    February 23, 2008

    @ Richard Simons – Here’s how I learned the plague song:

    Ring around the rosy [red marks on the skin]
    Pocket full of posy [flowers mask the smell]
    Ashes, ashes, [burning bodies]
    We all fall down. [dead]

    Creepy song for kids to sing! I wonder what other variations there are.

  19. #19 fullerenedream
    February 23, 2008

    Wikipedia reveals a wealth of variations on the rhyme, and questions its origin:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ring_around_the_rosy

  20. #20 Gerry L
    February 23, 2008

    When I was living in Japan, a sneeze became a cultural learning experience. After I sneezed, I sort of waited for someone to say something. Silence. Turned out they were waiting for me to say (the Japanese equivalent of) “excuse me.” I don’t recall whether I clued into the this the first time I sneezed … or the 20th time. (I was there 2 years.) But it did open up an interesting discussion about “gesundheit” and “bless you.”

    During a weekend driving trip with Japanese friends, I introduced “potty stop” into the Jangish vocabulary.

  21. #21 Kevin L.
    February 24, 2008

    I usually juggle between saying nothing (I don’t see the point), saying “gesundheit” (because it’s sensical and socially proper), and, just for kicks, saying “Walter Cronkite.”

    I get some perplexed looks with that last one.

  22. #22 wintersweet
    February 24, 2008

    This has to be one of my favorite scienceblogs.com comment threads ever. :)

    (Especially since I’m sneezing a lot lately, thanks to the exhibitionistic tendencies of the white ash tree…)

  23. #23 Wendy
    February 24, 2008

    I’m not an atheist, but I’m also not overtly religious, and yet I do say “bless you.” Mostly because I feel like not saying anything to acknowledge the sneeze would be rude. (Although this might be a holdover from my childhood that isn’t actually relevant anymore)? I think I’d like to try and remember to switch to “Gesundheit.” I like that better than “bless you” for a variety of reasons, and since I’m probably not going to be able to stop myself from saying something – it really is that deeply ingrained – it would be nice to say something that doesn’t have any religious overtones.

    Oh, and I thought that the reason we say “bless you” is because people believed that the heart stopped beating for a brief period during a sneeze, and the comment was a way of saying, “hey, I hope your heart starts working again now.”

  24. #24 esso
    February 24, 2008

    #14: “Germans usually sneeze by saying ‘hatschi’… I would be interested to learn about … the east asian ones.”

    Indonesian says ‘hatschi’ too.

  25. #25 Anne
    February 24, 2008

    I go ‘hatschi’ too instead of ‘achoo’.

    I never say anything when someone sneezes but my friend will compulsively bless everyone. She did it to a dog too much to everyone’s amusement.

    The Brights have some very quirky responses to people saying ‘God Bless You’ :
    # Thanks, but I’m already fully blessed.
    # Thanks, but I’ll take my chances unblessed.
    # Thanks, but I’m allergic to blessings.
    # Thanks, but Nature beat him to it

  26. #26 David Bradley
    February 24, 2008

    I posted a video on how to sneeze, truly gross it is.

    db

  27. #27 magetoo
    February 24, 2008

    “Prosit.”

    You wouldn’t want someone to think that you secretly hope the omen from the gods was a bad one, after all.

    (This is Sweden, by the way. And I find it just a tiny bit amusing that the post never mentions the context, other than saying what it’s not; i.e. Taiwan.)

  28. #28 David Marjanovi?
    February 24, 2008

    I hate it when I sneeze and people say something. Because then I’m supposed to say “thanks”, but I can’t speak yet, because I have to sneeze once more. Why don’t people just leave me alone?

    My very cultured uncle did in fact tell me that if you want to be really polite, you don’t say anything when someone sneezes — you just ignore this fauxpas

    I would be interested to learn about the french, spanish and italian versions, or even the east asian ones.

    Spanish: ATJ ATJ ATJ! With j like Swiss German ch.

    and, just for kicks, saying “Walter Cronkite.”

    I get some perplexed looks with that last one.

    That’s because German Krankheit means “illness”.

  29. #29 snowdog
    February 24, 2008

    In response to OmegaMom’s comment:

    It’s one of those geographical sayings. From what I’ve encountered, those who say “gesundheit” (like me) are from the Midwest; those who say “bless you” are from elsewhere.

    I’m not sure what part of the midwest you’re from, but here in Michigan I’ve probably only heard “gesundheit” a dozen times in my life. “Bless you” is by far more common here.

    For me, I think it’s almost a reflex reaction to say it, even though I’m an atheist.

  30. #30 Jason
    February 24, 2008

    Try saying “damn you” next time and see what kind of reaction you get. Does a pretty good job of underscoring the absurdity of the whole thing.

  31. #31 Samantha Vimes
    February 24, 2008

    German is actually a huge ethnic group among Americans. So “gesundheit” was what my family said (Koarts on half of my father’s side, my great grandmother spoke German) and what the Frohlings next door said, too, as I recall. I think I switched to bless you, or just bless, or, for more extreme sneeze series, “Oh dear, are you okay? Should I grab you some tissues?” after encountering a sufficient number of people who weren’t used to the German and getting lazy enough to stick to words that were easier to spell.
    And any blessings I considered to be simply a way of expressing good will, not an actual invocation.

  32. #32 Brian
    February 24, 2008

    Snowdog,

    There are really big German / Polish populations in Western Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh especially), Northern Kentucky (Go to Hoffbrau House in Newport, it rocks), Ohio (Cinci, where my German roots ended up), but maybe it doesn’t go up to Michigan.

  33. #33 Miss Cellania
    February 24, 2008

    Since the only people I spend time with are my kids, I have a tendency to say “Go wash your hands!” when I hear a sneeze.

  34. #34 Drugmonkey
    February 24, 2008

    Okay, I made it all the way down to comment #15 before I sneezed. you?

  35. #35 Robert Thille
    February 25, 2008

    I usually say, “That’s just allergies right? I don’t have to sterilize the entire area with bleach again, do I?” :-0

  36. #36 Jim Thomerson
    February 25, 2008

    It is not widely known; but, when you sneeze your soul momentarily leaves your body. Probably the most appropriate helpful comment would be, “Get back in there!”

  37. #37 Tobias
    February 27, 2008

    Here in the Netherlands people usually just say “gezondheid”. yes, it means exactly the same as gesundheit (German and Dutch usually “look” a lot like each other).

    But I usually use gesundheit. People never really seem to notice that I use the American/German version.

  38. #38 Chloe
    March 3, 2008

    French people sneeze “atchoum” or “atcha”. And we say “A tes souhaits”, which basically translates to “Make a wish”.

    There is also a tradition that you say “Make a wish” for the first sneeze (expected answer “thank you”), then something that could translate as a – non-religious– blessing of your love life for the second sneeze (expected answer: “may yours last long”), and something to the effect of blessing your lovers for the third one (expected answer: “may yours be it for long”). The whole things kind of rhymes. Then if there’s a fourth sneeze I don’t know what you are suppose to do – run away maybe?

  39. #39 Melito
    February 23, 2010

    I was taught to say “bless you” when I heard people sneeze.

    I don’t know if it is accurate or not, but I was taught that this originated from people thinking that a sneeze was a sign of someone’s soul trying to escape their body. The “blessing” (saying bless you) was a way to keep the soul from escaping.

    I think the story is funny whether it is accurate or not.

  40. #40 Massimiliano Falconi
    January 23, 2011

    Well I an Italian-Cuban, so usually I use “Salute”, very proper and nothing else than wishing the person good health.

    But when I am with the Cuban side there are many forms, Salud, which is the “Salute” equivalent, “Que dios te bendiga”, which is the “bless you” equivalent and “mamamela” which is profanity in Spanish cultures. Leaves the sneezer stating… “What???” (usually the answer involves “no nada” which mean “Nevermind :)”)

  41. #41 Omegle
    February 4, 2011

    But I usually use gesundheit. People never really seem to notice that I use the American/German version.

  42. #42 Ian
    September 18, 2011

    Did not notice anyone mention the glaringly obvious. Sneezing (plague related) was recognised (very early on) as a symptom of impending death, and like it or not, The “God Bless You” was akin to a small prayer of pity. “How’s your insurance?” might be a modern equivalent.

  43. #43 Paige
    September 29, 2011

    I had pretty bad allergies growing up and I was constantly sneezing. Not little dainty sneezes either, I packed a wallop whenever I sneezed. Still do actually. My dad would drive me up a wall with his reply of “..And she blew the house down!” whenever I sneezed. Drove me insane. Although now I can’t help thinking of it every time I hear someone else sneeze.

    I say “Bless you” even though I am an atheist, it’s just a polite thing to do. Almost every phrase I’ve heard stems from demons, gods or wishing health on themselves (e.g. Gesundheit, at least according to wikipedia) anyway so I’m not terrible worried about it.

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