Why we feel compelled to say ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes

Judy Mandell, The New York Times

Posted at Sep 22 2019 06:00 AM | Updated as of Sep 22 2019 06:01 AM

Saying “bless you” or “God bless you” after someone sneezes seems to be a reflex response. Why do we feel compelled to say it to anyone who sneezes, even if the sneezer is a stranger or the sneeze is heard from afar?

“Saying ‘God bless you’ following a sneeze is a common refrain, so common and taught from childhood that many people don’t even think of it as a blessing, but rather as an utterance without specific meaning other than a response to a sneeze that is polite in some way,” said Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine. “For many people, this response has been conditioned into them, that this is what you do when someone sneezes, anyone.”

“If it is repeated enough times, especially with positive reinforcement — the sneezer says ‘thank you’ — it becomes increasingly reflexive, it starts to be done without conscious thought,” Saltz added. “Today, people aren’t quite sure why they are saying it, but they are afraid that if they don’t say it, people will think that they are rude or don’t care about the person who sneezed.”

Dara Avenius, a New York publicist, is one of those people who finds it rude if she sneezes and someone goes on with a conversation as if she hadn’t just sneezed. She always says “bless you” to anyone who sneezes, even her dog.

How and where did this social behavior originate?

Historically, sneezes were thought to be an omen or warning from the gods, according to W. David Myers, a professor of history at Fordham University. “For European Christians, when the first plague that weakened the now Christian Roman Empire around 590, Pope Gregory the Great believed that a sneeze was an early warning sign of plague, so he commanded Christians to respond to a sneeze with a blessing,” he said.

In ancient times, people believed that sneezing would allow evil spirits to enter your body, and saying “God bless you” kept out those evil spirits.

“That was certainly another belief,” said Myers. “But other responses to sneezing — Gesundheit, in German; Salud, in Spanish — came from the idea that a sneeze is a sign of divine beneficence.”

Of all the random things that happen that could be associated with God, why sneezing?

According to Dr. Omar Sultan Haque, a psychiatrist and social scientist at Harvard Medical School, although the onset of sneezes appears to be random, attributing divine blessing may function to explain things when ordinary explanations are lacking. “Because of the deep connection in the human psyche between religion, cleanliness and the emotion of disgust, invoking God after sneezing is more likely, as compared to invoking God after other anomalous events like a random piece of debris hitting someone on the shoulder,” he said.

Kaley Komanski, a social media manager based in Orlando, recently taught herself to say “gesundheit” rather than “bless you” when people sneeze. “It took a few weeks for it to become second nature and to feel natural,” she said. “I think it’s super uncomfortable to hear ‘God bless you’ all the time. It’s probably worth mentioning that I’m an atheist, which really drove me to edit my word choice when people sneeze.”

“I think some atheists are annoyed by the use of the word God in ‘God bless you.’ Atheists probably prefer gesundheit or some equivalent, which just means ‘good health,’ a principle the faithful and faithless alike can believe in,” Haque said.

“Saying simply ‘bless you’ also reduces religious implications or revelations about your own beliefs,” said Frank Farley, a psychology professor at Temple University. “It’s more nonsectarian.”

Sharon Schweitzer, who has etiquette, says that even today, many people still believe that saying “God bless you” or “bless you” is an indication of social standing, social graces and kindness, whether you are familiar with the historical origins or not. “Our parents taught us to say it, so we feel compelled to do so, even in 2019.”

Farley offers a variety of motives for why so many of us feel compelled to offer a blessing after someone sneezes.

CONDITIONED RESPONSE: People often say “thank you” when we say “God bless you” when they sneeze. The thank-you serves as a reward and reinforcement.

IT’S CATCHING: We may imitate others who offer a blessing; we model their behavior. This might start at a young age when we see and hear adults around us doing this. Sometimes several “bless you’s” will be heard from various people in the vicinity of a sneeze, a kind of social contagion.

MICRO-AFFECTIONS: Saying “bless you” may engender an extremely brief and passing feel-good connection to the person sneezing, a phenomenon that Farley calls “micro-affections,” an antidote to the “microagressions” we hear so much about.

CONFORMITY: Many of us conform to the norm. Saying “bless you” in response to a sneeze is part of the civility that underlies many of our social mores.

Monica Eaton-Cardone, owner and chief operating officer of a cybersecurity company who travels globally for her business, said she feels compelled to say “God bless you” when someone is sick and sneezing because it’s a fast, simple way to let someone know that you care about their well-being. “There’s something so universally democratic about our health,” she said. “For me, the phrase is another way for us to connect. And besides, no matter how blessed we are, who among us couldn’t use an extra blessing?”