GUEST COLUMN By RICHARD WADE
Dec. 2, 2009
You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard@ca.rr.com. All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of request; please be patient.
I have what should be a fairly easy question: what is an appropriate humanist response to a friend's sneeze? There must be an alternative to "bless you" or "gesundheit," but I've never heard of one.
The first question to consider is why assume that anything needs to be said at all? We don't have similar customs for coughs, belches, hiccups, yawns, stomach growls or farts.
In my snarkier days when a person sneezed at work, instead of blessing them I was tempted to say, "Oh, thanks a lot, you selfish S.O.B. for bringing your virus here and spraying it all over the room! You should have stayed home until you were well. Now we're all more likely to get it."
I was tempted to say that, but I didn't. Read on. I have more positive suggestions.
There are many explanations for the custom of saying "bless you" or its equivalent after a sneeze. The most commonly accepted explanation is the ancient belief that a person's soul briefly left their body during a sneeze and that evil spirits could enter during the absence. "Blessing" the person was thought to insure the prompt return of the soul and protection from demonic intrusion. Back when a sneeze might be the first sign of a disease that would kill the person, I suppose it's understandable that a sense of serious risk might become attached to a sneeze.
So the root of the perceived need to say something–anything–is superstition, and humanism rejects superstition.
However, humanism also focuses on concern for the wellbeing of people, and a sneeze, unless it's from the dust on the neglected family Bible tucked away on the top bookshelf, might indicate that the person is ill. So if you feel the need to say something, express your humanist concern with, "Are you feeling okay?" or "Do you need a tissue?" or something originating from your concern about the actual person, rather than a wayward ghost.
In the strictest sense, "gesundheit" is German for "health," "good health" or "be well." So you could use it from a humanist perspective, expressing your hope that the sneezer stays well. The problem is that its roots go back to the time of ancient Rome and Gaul and have acquired the same basic connotation of a magical warding off of evil. Also, it's said just as automatically as "bless you," and repeating "gesundheit" several times in rapid succession after a salvo of rapid sneezes indicates a similar superstition is at the heart of the ritual.
The drawback of saying anything at all is that sneezes often happen several times in a day. You'll soon run out of such things to say and repeating them will sound ridiculous.
You should probably start practicing becoming comfortable with the same polite silence we usually observe when all those other bodily sounds are heard in the room.
Wishing you good health,
(Richard Wade is both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a Marriage and Family Therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseled more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.)