A Blessing on Your Head

Slate.com has a little section, “Dear Prudence”, where they talk about things like etiquette and the like. Most of the advice in this area is of the “Dear Abby” variety.

I was reading over it earlier today and came across an interesting question.

Atlanta: It is cold and flu season, and the sniffling and sneezing is rampant in our small office. Being in the Bible Belt, each time I sneeze, my co-workers will say, “Bless you.” I know that this is somewhat customary, and a polite thing to say, but I am not comfortable saying it myself. I am not Christian, nor am I a regular church attendee, and using the word bless just doesn’t feel right.

I know that religious speech makes some uncomfortable, and I also have genuine ethical and moral objections about using religious expressions so superficially, but I feel like it is expected from my boss, who after not hearing a “bless you” after her sneezes will respond with an exaggerated, “BLESS ME!” I don’t want to be rude by forgoing the blessings, but I also hate going against my principles just to make others happy.

I feel like it would be a terrible professional move to make my religious beliefs known, and I’ve tried saying “Gesundheit,” but it feels just as phony as “bless you” because I’m not German. What should I do when others achoo?

Believe it or not, this is something I’ve often dealt with. I’m an atheist, and I’m prone to massive sneezing attacks (like four or five sneezes in a row, several times a day. I understand there’s sneeze-fetish people out there. I’m sure they’d love me. I can even self-induce!). Sometimes I sneeze so hard and so often that my arms and lower back begin to feel pain, due to the intense, rapid constriction of the muscles.

In the beginning when I started working at my current job, people would often say “Bless you!” when I sneezed. I eventually began pulling them aside and politely explaining that I’d prefer they just ignore it, since it’s something I don’t like doing and can’t control. I’d rather the attention not be drawn to it. I also politely hinted, at least to those co-workers that I got along well with, that I was an atheist, and the “Bless” part of it wasn’t entirely welcome.

I also never understood why we say “Bless you!” to begin with. It’s always struck me as slightly stupid. The Straight Dope explained it, but I still don’t really get why we keep doing it, other than Tradition! Tradition! (arguably that’s the second Fiddler on the Roof reference I’ve made here, which is impressive, since I didn’t care for it, though I do always remember lyrics that went, “If I were a Flintstone, yabba-dabba-dabba-dabba-dabba-dabba-dabba-dabba-doo!”)

Here’s what Emily Yoffe had to say on the issue.

Emily Yoffe: This is not about religion; it’s about etiquette. Saying “Bless you” is simply a customary remark after a sneeze; it is not the equivalent of taking a communion wafer. Forget thinking you are being forced into religious speech or violating your ethical code by the silly, but expected, act of acknowledging someone else’s sneeze.

Ok, but there’s a few problems here. First, the word “bless” is inescapably religious in nature. There’s no way around it. That’s as silly as saying that having “In God we trust” on our currency is acceptable because it’s not about religion (yes, this is the argument used).

Second, she’s right: it’s customary. But it’s a stupid custom. She even admits that it’s “silly” to acknowledge someone’s sneeze. I entirely agree. It’s silly, it’s stupid, it’s pointless and in the case of “bless you!” has religious overtones.

So let’s just all stop doing it. It serves no purpose and in the case of people like me, who have chronic sneezing issues, it’s really annoying. So let’s just knock it off.