Thursday, October 29, 2009

Office Etiquette: Appropriate Sneezing Responses

Office Etiquette: Appropriate Sneezing Responses

Yesterday I was in an all day meeting (which could/should/will be an article all to itself) and at some point during the session, someone sneezed and another person said "God Bless You". The person didn't just "GodBlessYou" in the mindless way everyone seems to; they made it a point to clearly and slowly say GOD.....BLESS....YOU. The three second act started to buzz around my head for a few minutes and I started to wonder if anyone was offended at the usage of the word God (Christian or Non-Christian)

If you are Christian, it seems kind of petty to invoke the name of the creator of all existence just because somebody had a very small biological reaction to dust in the air. I have heard that saying "Bless You" or "God Bless You" took hold during the dark ages because people thought a sneeze was your "soul attempting to escape your body". After some research that lore seems to be confirmed:
Several possible origins are commonly given. The practice of blessing a sneeze, dating as far back as at least 77 AD, however, is far older than most specific explanations can account for.

A legend holds that it was believed that the the heart stops beating and the phrase "bless you" is meant to ensure the return of life or to encourage your heart to continue beating.

One explanation holds that the custom originally began as an actual blessing. Gregory I became Pope in 590 as an outbreak of the bubonic plague was reaching Rome. In hopes of fighting off the disease, he ordered unending prayer and parades of chanters through the streets. At the time, sneezing was thought to be an early symptom of the plague. The blessing ("God bless you!") became a common effort to halt the disease.

A variant of the Pope Gregory I story places it with Pope Gregory VII, then tells the common story of "Ring Around the Rosey" being connected to the same plague

Another version says that people used to believe that your soul can be thrown from your body when you sneeze, that sneezing otherwise opened your body to invasion by the Devil or evil spirits, or that sneezing was your body's effort to force out an invading evil spirit. Thus, "bless you" or "God bless you" is used as a sort of shield against evil.

Alternatively, it may be possible that the phrase began simply as a response for an event that was not well understood at the time.

Another belief is that people used to see sneezing as a sign that God would answer your prayers or an omen of good fortune or good luck.In this case, "Bless you" would be in recognition of that luck.

Tibetan Buddhists believe a sneeze (like meditation, falling asleep, preparing to die) can provide a moment of "clear consciousness," when people are opened to greater understanding.

Credit: Wikipedia

PS: I had assume that "Gesundheit" meant the same thing in German, but the word has origins in both the German and Jewish cultures and has a minor but interesting variation. It is assumed that "Gesundheit" isn't blessing the other person, in rough translation in means "good health to me".

While the history of the term is certainly interesting, I wonder if phrases like that have a place at international corporations. The combination of cultural diversity and a bored HR departments could be a dangerous mix. My intent is to avoid sounding like "no more Xmas Parties in the office because it offends the non-Christians" people because that is an exhausting position (I have a Christmas party every year with Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and non-believers in attendance). On this side note: I don't view Xmas as religious in any way; I view Christmas as tourists view "The Running of the Bulls" in Spain. It is a cultural event that everyone can enjoy from the safety of balcony and should you find yourself on the ground and the path of a bull (or large angry house wife looking for that last toy on the list)... RUN.

For the most part, when someone sneezes, I am not thinking "I wonder what I should say", I am usually thinking, "I hope that clown covered their face". In a related event yesterday, there was a bull of a woman sitting behind me on the train ride home who was not only loudly conducting a conversation with two other people, she was sneezing and coughing all over the back of my head, I had to move. I did not say "GodBlessYou" or "Gesundheit" but I was giving her the death stare and maybe wishing her soul would fly away, infecting St. Peter at the gates of heaven. I also hope that he kicks her ass out. A man can dream...

UPDATE: This little article has become the all time most popular on the blog. If you have a second, can you tell me how and why you came across it - I just like to know where my readers are coming from.