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

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: