The Humanist Dilemma: A Secular Response to Sneezing

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective?

Send your questions to The Ethical Dilemma at (subject line: Ethical Dilemma).

All inquiries are kept confidential.

Nothing To Sneeze At: Overlooking the fact that I’ve long wondered why there needs to be any response to a sneeze, superstitions are hilarious. I feel like I’m lying if I utter, “Bless you,” and “gesundheit” is just silly, not to mention out of favor, at least in northern New England). Your thoughts?

—Is The Solution To Stop Sneezing?

Dear Sneeze,

I guess this question is seasonal, like allergies and the flu, but it’s always a good one to revisit. As I’ve said in past columns, it’s very difficult the break the habit—and social nicety—of saying something when someone sneezes, and the default response is “bless you.” Although “gesundheit” and “salud” and such have much more amenable meanings (i.e., “health”), they may not flow in a natural or timely manner. The fact that there are customary phrases in most languages  demonstrates how universal the impulse to say something is.

Ignoring the sneeze seems just plain rude. But then, we don’t say anything for coughs, burps, hiccups, or farts—in fact, in all those cases, the onus is on the one who dealt it to say “excuse me” or feign innocence. I’m also not versed in the etiquette when someone sneezes in repeat bursts or eleven times in succession. Do we say something each time or retire after once or twice? And how far do we go to extend the courtesy to strangers in an elevator, on a bus, at the next table?

I personally say “bleshoo,” a nonsense word I came up with. It sounds like something but means nothing, which I consider appropriate. And I generally quit after two to three iterations (unless the sneezing goes on so long I feel justified in inquiring if the sneezer needs help). I also may say it, with a wink, after other sound effects, just to “clear the air” of embarrassment. And if a stranger sneezes nearby or is the only other person around, I will offer a single acknowledgement (more seems overly familiar).

It probably would be ideal if we could all just refrain from saying anything after any bodily sound effects, but humans are empathetic creatures who feel they must offer some token to a fellow experiencing noisy spasms.

Readers, what do you say?