And there you are, in an instant etiquette quandary. Do you say, as is traditional, “Bless You!”? Maybe, maybe not.
As it turns out, a lot of us are unsure about whether or not to say, “Bless You.” We don’t wish to offend, but we’re not sure what to say if anything.
We asked 103 people in the U.S. if they thought it was rude not to say “Bless you” when someone sneezes. 76% of respondents said it was not rude. So the majority think that “Bless you” is not the right way to go.
The Origin of the Phrase “Bless You”
“Bless you,” of course, stems from the full original saying, “God Bless You.” Although its origins are not certainly known, the phrase may have originated from Rome and/or Pope Gregory I. Sneezes were associated with the bubonic plague. As the theory goes; his Holiness offered up this saying as a means of protecting each other. So, we could say that “Bless You” is papal in its origins. We’re not all followers of what the Pope says anymore, so it’s not appropriate for all.
Around the late 1970s, people began realizing and acknowledging that not everyone believes in God, or the same god, and the sneeze phrase was shortened for many to simply, “Bless You.”
Still, some may be offended by the connotation of blessings, at all. An Athiest, for example, may not believe any of it, and you may be irritating them, which we are sure you don’t wish to do.
But what do you do? What if you don’t wish to offend? What are you going to do, just stare at the person? You need some strategies. So, let’s look at some actions you can take to try to handle the situation in the most appropriate way possible.
In Some Places It Is Better to Refrain from Blessings
Our first suggestion is to know your audience. If you’re in the Bible Belt, sitting in church, and the person next to you sneezes, it’s probably okay to say, “God Bless You.” Right? Same with a ward in Utah, or any other conservative pocket of geography. We seriously doubt that anyone will take offense. Go ahead and say either phrase.
Now, if you are in a very ethnically diverse, politically progressive pocket (say, L.A., or NY), we’d re-think that advice. You may offend someone. Perhaps you’ll be on the subway in New York and your seat neighbor has to cough or sneeze. You’d be okay to ignore them and not say anything.
A more polite response might be to offer them a tissue (don’t we all carry around those little packs, now?) Or, perhaps a spritz of hand sanitizer?
Wish Good Health Instead
Here’s another gentle way to handle the situation.
You can say, “Gesundheit!” This excellent word, derived from the German language, means to wish a person good health.
It has a similar purpose as “God Bless You,” but you aren’t dragging God into the conversation, thus avoiding possible offense.
If you’re unsure of what to say, you can try this trick: say it fast, or say it very quietly. Use sotto voce. The sneezer may know you’ve said something to acknowledge the event, but might not be sure exactly what.
You can also make light of it. The Dutch say that if a person has sneezed three times, that is a sign of good weather the next day. That sort of changes the subject and gets you away from having to say the phrase.
Say Nothing at All
You could just ignore the sneezing. That’s possible, and in some office situations, probably a safer way to go.
Offices these days are hotbeds of political correctness that saying nothing sometimes is the safest route.
A ton of meetings happen on Zoom or Teams nowadays, which you may find makes it easier to have to find something to say. If someone sneezes, you can ignore it. Alternatively, there may be a cute emoji that you could insert into the chat, signifying that you are sympathetic and not ignoring their plight.
Sometimes, poor folks get into “serial sneezing.” They just can’t stop. You may have experienced and you certainly want to; it’s annoying and sometimes embarrassing. What should you do? Excuse yourself. Get the heck away from people, who will likely be concerned and/or worried. Just say, “Excuse me” and get away until you have control. Wash your hands. If you sneeze, you should not be sneezing into your hands. You should sneeze into your elbow. But you should still wash your hands.
Think of It as a Polite Tradition
Here’s another thought. Is it the most terrible thing in the world to extend an old-fashioned courtesy? We don’t think it is. In this day and age, people are pretty politically correct and can be touchy. If you are just trying to be nice, and someone takes offense, well, whatever.
For many of us, particularly older U.S folks, saying “Bless You” or “God Bless You” is pretty entrenched or engrained. We do it automatically. We may also mess up someone’s pronouns, or irritate someone by an action we have been taught is traditional. Sorry. Most people try to go about their lives without offending others. As we all know, it can be really difficult to keep up with the latest offensive action is. In the big scheme of things, a little phrase shouldn’t be such a major upset.
If someone gives you the “God Bless You,” you make a bigger etiquette faux pas by being a jerk about it. Just say, “thank you.” and move on.
If you say the phrase and can instantly tell you’ve offended, or they say they are offended, apologize. Saying:
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t sure what the right thing was to say. I did not mean to offend you.”
This could offer the opportunity for an explanation or even a constructive discussion about various beliefs. A teaching moment.
Matt Vargas is an author and public speaking coach with a degree in sociology and more than ten years of practical experience. Matt is responsible for the empirical surveys at everyday-courtesy.com, is a passionate recreational musician, and blogs here about his experiences in the field of interpersonal communication.