Cardella: Gesundheit

Why do we say “God bless you!” after a person sneezes? This is the kind of serious question that consumes me in my quest to understand humankind. We react like Pavlov’s dog when someone sneezes. We’re conditioned to an automatic response. You sneeze. I say, “God bless you” without even thinking. It may be the one thing that unites us. The one thing that cuts across racial and political fault lines. If Joe Biden sneezed and Donald Trump was in the room, he’d get a “God bless you” and vice-versa. As much as I hate Putin, if he sneezed while in my company, I’d find myself wishing that God blessed him. How did this happen?

I don’t remember my parents training me on how to react when a person sneezes. Were we brainwashed, and if so, why? Think about it. Of all the courtesies our parents tried to teach us, why the hell would the one that stuck be how to react when someone sneezes?

Nowadays with COVID still active, your sneeze is more dangerous to me than you. The way some folks sneeze, 6 feet is not nearly enough distance to separate us.  “God bless you” should be “God bless me” when you sneeze because I need protection more than you. Although I do feel some sympathy for you sneezers while wearing a mask. That’s messy. And what do you do if you don’t have a change of mask at that point and you’re in public? It’s a worse scene than being caught without a tissue after a sneeze. When I was a kid I did what all kids do — I wiped my nose with the sleeve of my shirt. My mother always seemed to catch me in the act. She’d say, “Eeew — now you have a patent leather sleeve.” Patent leather is a high-gloss leather. Mom could be very descriptive.

History says that folks once believed that when a person sneezes, their soul exits the body. The thought was that sneezing was a dangerous act that could leave a person vulnerable to illness. The least a person could do was wish for God’s blessings to protect the person sneezing. For some reason, the practice has continued to this day. If you sneeze around an atheist, you’ll still get a “God bless you” in return.

As far as I know, there is no set of rules governing how often you’re required to offer the blessing when someone sneezes multiple times. Do you say “God bless you” after each sneeze? Do you wait until a person is finished sneezing and utter the blessing only once? I practice the latter method. But how do you tell when the last sneeze is really the last one? I’m parsimonious with my blessings. You’re not getting more than one good “God bless you” out of me. If you’ve got allergies, that’s your problem. I wait until your last sneeze before I give you my “God bless you.” And if you resume sneezing less than five minutes later, I’m ignoring your sneezes. It’s my own personal crusade to reduce the number of times I’m going to say “God bless you.” If that makes me a bad person, so be it. I don’t care if you’re Mother Teresa or Johnny Depp. You get one “God bless you” from me.

Did you ever wonder why some people use the German version of “God bless you” — Gesundheit? People who never spoke a foreign language suddenly speak German when you sneeze. My sources tell me the practice of using “Gesundheit” for “God bless you” originated in 1914 (I’m thinking in response to the Kaiser showing signs of a head cold). The real question is how did Gesundheit’s popularity spread here?

Here we were with a couple of world wars with Germany in our near future and somehow “Gesundheit” came into fashion? What was that all about? Was it considered unpatriotic to offer a “Gesundheit” to an American soldier in a foxhole who happened to sneeze? I can’t imagine Winston Churchill railing against the Nazis and saying “Gesundheit” to a sneezing Brit? Winnie is giving his “Blood, sweat and tears” speech. He sneezes while doing so. And a Brit shouts out, “Gesundheit.” Couldn’t happen, could it?

Somewhere along the way, I decided to alternate my use of “God bless you” and “Gesundheit.” My family didn’t like it. They were patriotic Americans. But they did brag that I was now bilingual. In German or English, I never deviated from my rule on saving the “Gesundheit” until a person’s sneezing fit was over.

I keep wondering. How far does this cultural phenomenon reach? In the jungles of Borneo, are sneezes greeted by “God bless you” or “Gesundheit?” Are sneezes ignored? If someone sneezes in a jungle but no one is there to hear it, is it really a sneeze?

Has anyone seriously studied the sneeze for its social implications. Couldn’t Margaret Mead have taken a few hours out of her busy day to study the social response to sneezing?

I have to admit why I have this personal peeve about sneezes. There is nothing more disruptive than sneezing during sex. How is a person to react when you ask them if it was good for them and they respond with a sneeze? At that point “Gesundheit” seems wholly inadequate. What do you do? Offer them an Allegra? Or offer them another Viagra?  Or both.

I hope this tutorial has been enlightening. Next week, we’ll dissect the socialized norms of the hiccup. Something else that can interrupt the best sex.