In the beginning was the word

Ads for Mind Over Manners are starting to pop up in the Globe and the New York Times, and occasionally people besides my in-laws do notice them. (Though only the senior Improbables regularly cut them out for me.) One of the questions that the ad mentions is “Is it acceptable to say ‘Bless you’ to a sneezing atheist”? Which led to this letter:

I felt like your prompt was meant just for me! What DO you say to a sneezing atheist?! My partner is a firm non believer and every time he sneezes my reflexes kick in and I end up getting an eye roll from him when I utter the ridiculous “God Bless You” that I’ve been raised to say. Now, I’m not so worried about hurting his feelings (he knows it’s a reflex more than anything else) but I do wonder about the random people I “bless” on the train. Is there something else I can say to strangers who may or may not believe in a god? And please, something a little less corny than gesundheit!

That’s not the only letter I’ve gotten on that question–there is something about it, somehow, that tickles people in some deep way, like a feather up high in your nose. (I could do this extended and very gross metaphor about how we should keep inhaling that feather-question deeper and deeper into our mind-nose, until we sneeze out all our clogged-up thoughts about it, and then we should look in the Kleenex to see what’s been inside us all this time. But that would be disgusting, and so I won’t, although I do think it would be a great Tracy Jordan rant on “30 Rock.”)

As I said way back when I answered the original question, “Bless you” is actually fairly neutral, as it doesn’t indicate by whom one is being blessed. I don’t really like “God bless you,” personally, whether I look at it from a secular angle or a religious one. Atheists are one of those minority groups that very rarely get a break in our religion-saturated culture, so I’m in favor of allowing them freedom from religion whenever there’s an opportunity. “God bless you” has always seemed like a bit of theological overkill, anyway. Let’s bring God into the equation when I have a mammogram that’s difficult to read, not because I sneezed. Especially during ragweed season. Besides, isn’t there something about the automatic nature of saying “God bless you” that puts it awfully close to taking the Lord’s name in vain?

And yet, we need religious or supernatural language. Even atheists, when announcing good news, will say, “Knock on wood!” or will offer “Good luck!” to a friend about to go off to an important job interview. In the face of potentially changing circumstances, we almost always revert to some kind of magical language to acknowledge that our own fortune may change or to indicate our hopes for others. A few months ago, I had some potential good news coming down the pike, and I requested good thoughts from friends in a status update on Facebook. People responded with everything from fully sincere promises of prayer to simple “Fingers crossed!” to joking pledges to sacrifice a goat on my behalf–but the one thing that no one, Christian or Jew or pagan or atheist, did, was simply to say, “That’s great, I hope you get it.” Such a response would have seemed almost insultingly non-committal. Whatever people’s beliefs, they felt compelled to drag a little magic into their words in order to wish you well.

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8 Responses to In the beginning was the word

  1. occhiblu says:

    I had kind of the opposite issue yesterday — a co-worker, who is also a pastor, sneezed, and I responded automatically with “Bless you,” and then I worried, as you said, that he’d think I was taking the Lord’s name in vain. Not that I used the Lord’s name, but it does seem rather implied.

  2. Stupendousness says:

    I’m an atheist, and me and my atheist friends aren’t bothered by “Bless you” after a sneeze. We’re not dumb – we realize it’s an automatic, often expected response in our culture. No biggie.

    Though I tend towards the opinion of, Why bother acknowledging the sneeze? “Oh, some mucus was just expelled from your nose and/or mouth, here, let me acknowledge that.”

    I’m glad you bring up the Facebook example. I tend to not use magical language when responding to good or bad news. I prefer to explicitly state my emotions, like, “That sounds terrific!” or “I am so sorry to hear that. I’ll be thinking about you, and I’m here if you need to talk.”

    But sometimes a “Good luck!” is perfectly sufficient. I think taking the time to relay any sort of happiness or encouragement is a good thing in this world.

  3. Jenny1144 says:

    Related question–what do you say when someone coughs? (I’m talking about a good five- or ten-second spasm, not a solitary throat-clearing-type cough.) I always feel the need to acknowledge it, especially if it’s in the middle of a conversation, but “bless you” is not traditionally applied to coughs, and “are you okay?” (the only other response I can think of) seems like an overreaction, requires a response, and is a silly question in the first place since they’re sitting right in front of me and clearly no longer coughing. But–probably because of the “bless you” phenomenon for sneezing–keeping quiet just seems rude. Is there no noncommittal acknowledgment response that I’m overlooking? Or should I just quash my sneeze-spawned urge to comment and move on with my life?

  4. Stupendousness says:

    Jenny, I have noticed more people saying “Bless you” when another person coughs. At first I thought they were confused and thought the cough was a sneeze, but I’ve seen it happen with strong, obvious coughs.

    I don’t think it should be acknowledged if you’re not talking to the person. Really, I think most bodily functions shouldn’t be commented on at all. Not because Oh it’s icky and let’s ignore we’re all human, but because it’s a bit too private, in a way. I mean, I realize sneezes and coughs can be heard, so they’re not truly private. But we don’t comment when someone has a big honkin’ zit on hir face, right? This sort of thing is just a part of everyday life, and I don’t see the sense in making any sort of to-do about it.

    Now, if you’re talking to someone and sie coughs for a long time, then I think a quick, “You alright?” would be acceptable, and if the person says “Yes” just move on with the conversation like it didn’t happen. I wouldn’t use an extremely concerned tone either – no point in making it sound more dramatic than it may be. Sometimes people just need to cough a lot (I have post-nasal drip and often have to cough repeatedly to get my voice back).

  5. bluemoose says:

    Being not a believer in any particular version of a god, I have opted for the German “Gesundheit,” which I believe translates to “Health.” In my own defense, I am wishing good health on the sneezer so that I don’t catch their germs. I think we’re long past believing a sneeze will expel your soul.

    I like magical language. I think it is one of the things that connects us as a culture, especially when your magic language makes most sense to those close to you. Live long and prosper.

  6. Eeeeka says:

    Blue moose: Gesundheit means “good health.” German is such a funny language. Good luck is translated as “Hab Schwein.” Which literally means, “Have a pig.” :)

  7. RP says:

    As an atheist Jew, I go with the thought that Yiddish is always appropriate and say “Gesunt!” when someone sneezes. None of the goyim seem perturbed about it, which makes me think that you can say pretty much anything after someone sneezes and the social obligation is met.

  8. Robin says:

    RP, remember when they tried to start saying “You are so good-looking!” instead of “Bless you” on “Seinfeld”?

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