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The many deep issues sparked by a simple ‘Achoo!’

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Robert Lentz

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in Business Etiquette,Workplace Communication

At 10:32 a.m. on a busy Tuesday, a tiny mote of dust gently irritates your nasal passages and you sneeze. The person in the next cubicle, recognizing that this situation calls for nothing less than the intercession of a major deity to preserve your health, offers up a loud “God bless you!”

The post-sneeze moment can be a strangely telling one. In the office, you’re either a “Bless you” person (somewhat formal), a “Gesundheit” wielder (the choice of both the hipster and the old school), or you offer nothing at all—the latter being a somewhat bold and maybe even politically dangerous move.

These expressions are essentially offers of sympathy in a moment when we are briefly reminded of our physical frailties. A “Bless you” says, “I feel for you as a human being. Aye, we are all just imperfect and mortal bodies; solidarity, my friend!” Remaining silent after a co-worker’s sneeze is a moment missed; you had a chance to connect with someone on an elemental human level and chose not to. Whispers begin about such folk—just as some become vaguely irritated by the multiple blessers, those who insert their sympathy after every sneeze in a sequence. This can came off as, “Behold how sensitive I am—I shall not let a single sneeze go by without opening my heart to you!” Few are fans of that level of charity. (Their equivalent would be the door-holders who want so badly to guarantee your safe passage that they prop it open and wait even if you’re just a tiny dot in the distance.)

And what if you never thank people at all for their Achoo! condolences? Well, it’s actually important to show gratitude for these hollow words, in order to send your own message: “I have received your ‘Gesundheit’ and am grateful for your concern. I respect the little traditions and niceties that pass between office folk, and I want to be a part of them. Let us embrace each other on a purely abstract level!”

Above all, to whatever extent you choose to engage in the Conversation of the Sneeze, keep it consistent among everyone. Being discriminatory when it comes to who gets a blessing, or who gets thanked for one, gets noticed. A boss who doesn’t chime in when the nose of a subordinate revolts, but does so when the higher-ups fall prey to the same event, is asking to be resented. And if a clique mentality grips you even during moments of others’ nasal instability, you’ve got a serious negativity problem. Meanwhile, listen close when you sneeze yourself—if you’re getting a lot of silence, that’s a sign you’re simply not well-liked.

Office politics really do get that deep.

Timing is everything in the realm of the sneeze

Our own highly, highly scientific calculations have revealed that there is a strict mathematical formula for knowing when to respond to that familiar sound:



{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Denise Mines September 17, 2015 at 1:03 pm

Here’s something I wrote about sneezing. I just wrote it for myself. I’m too shy a person to say it to anyone or hand it to a friend. but it fits in with your article that was reprinted in the 9/17 Philadelphia Inquirer.


I sneeze a lot. I don’t always have cold or common allergies, I just have a ticklish nose and if some piece of stuff floats by it makes me sneeze. It’s my nose’s way of laughing at the tickle. I’ve sneezed so much that I automatically say “Thank you, “ just after the event, even if no one has said “God bless you “ and sometimes even when I am alone. It’s just a reflex.
I’m not going to research why humans say “God Bless You,” to each other after every sneeze. We don’t reflexively say anything after a person coughs or burps or passes gas. We might inquire as to their health or joke about the aroma, but there is no universal comment similar to “God Bless You” for those actions.
As an active sneezer, I’m over being blessed for each sneeze. I don’t mind sneezing, I don’t care if my companion blesses me or neglects the rite. Of course, I am considered rude if I don’t thank them, so I do try.
What ticks me off is people who bless me “For the Day.” If blessing my sneeze is such an imposition just don’t do it. But if I were to say so, I’d be considered ungrateful.
It’s not a God or religious issue. I just think it’s an ancient habit that we have forgotten to stop. We have to learn not to do it.


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