Sneezing in America: How to respond without invoking religion

by epi on November 22, 2013

Q: As my child is getting older and I am trying to instill good manners, I have a question regarding the polite response to a person sneezing. The German “gesundheit” speaks of wishes to good health. In the U.S. we use “Bless you” or “God bless you.” Is there a polite response to a sneeze in the U.S. that doesn’t involve God or blessing?

A: You can use the traditional German response, or simply say “Bless you” without including God. Blessings come in many forms and don’t necessarily invoke God’s name. This may be more comfortable for you if you don’t wish to use the word God.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Ash November 22, 2013 at 10:43 am

I disagree. The question was is there a polite response to use besides using “god” or “blessing”. The answer is not saying anything. Saying “bless you” still evokes a religious tone, and people expect a “thank you” in response for “blessing” you, which many people might not agree with. It’s unfair to ask people to say thank you to a blessing from a god that doesn’t exist.

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Winifred Rosenburg November 22, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Regardless of your opinion on whether or not God exists, you should show appreciation for the fact that the person saying “God bless you” is trying yo be polite. That is what you are thanking them for. “God bless you” and “Bless you” remain polite responses to sneezes as are “Gesundheit” and other foreign equivalents. The correct response to all of these is “Thank you.”

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Elizabeth November 22, 2013 at 6:17 pm

I agree. I am not religious and I do not think of “bless you” as a religious phrase. Culturally it has simply become the “thing we say” when someone sneezes. I do think it is anachronistic, but I in no way feel that someone is trying to press religion on me nor do I have any religious sentiment in mind when I say it.

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Mariette's Back to Basics November 22, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Trying to gain popularity by writing about such subjects?
This is an English speaking country I thought… not German. So therefore saying Gesundheid here in the USA, is not appropriate; you can use it when visiting Germany.
For as long as I do remember we always said in Dutch the very same as here in the USA (not America, as that is about two different continents – North and South) namely: God bless you! What’s wrong with that? Guess that is polite enough.
On top of that, if a person sneezes three times in The Kingdom of The Netherlands they exclaim that the sun will shine! Double blessing…
Happy Thanksgiving to you!
Mariette’s Back to Basics

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Jody November 22, 2013 at 4:45 pm

I disagree with Mariette, saying “gesundheit” *is* perfectly appropriate in the US. It might vary from region to region, but it is an accepted and appropriate term.

Back to the original question, though, I don’t know of a “sneeze response” that doesn’t include the word Bless or God. Yes, “bless you” doesn’t invoke a deity but the OP doesn’t want to use the word Bless. Maybe “gesundheit” is the most appropriate one after all — all it means is “health.”

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Vanna Keiler November 23, 2013 at 6:40 pm

The whole reason for responding to someone sneezing in Canada and the United States, from what I understand, is to acknowledge the sneeze and demonstrate concern for the sneezer.

When an individual sneezed in the past, there was an assumption that a sickness was imminent. Nowadays, with allergies of all types being recognized, as well as faster cold remedies (and better standards of living), being sick or sneezing is not as worrisome as it used to be. Invoking God’s name has its roots in most religions, to add a supernatural healing element to the malady.

In our current times, people will continue to use the expression “Bless you!” out of habit, hopefully not to offend, push their religious weight around, or provoke. Most people think of it as an exclamation of concern. Furthermore, in the work arena, ignoring a sneezer is sometimes considered cold: you are too busy to worry about your colleague’s health. Therefore, if you feel insulted when someone says “Bless you!” to your sneeze, or refuse to say “Bless you!” when others sneeze, it is certainly your prerogative to do so. But until “Bless you” is summarily outlawed in business social circles, it will continue to rear it’s slandered head, much like a trampled sunflower, which fights to stand back up in the warm sunshine. :)

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Katie K November 24, 2013 at 1:25 pm

To the original poster: You could start a new tradition: teach your child to say ” to your health”, or “good health to you”, or for something a bit more off-beat, you could try, “live long and prosper”. ;-)

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Lee Murphy December 2, 2013 at 10:47 am

In a world where people are generally not nice to each other, I welcome a “God bless you” every now and then.

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Rusty Shackleford December 3, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Every culture in the world, except the US, uses some reference to health when a person sneezes. Gesundheit is perfectly appropriate save for the fact that some people in the US, unaware of its German origin, associate the term as being too juvenile. I recall asking this very question a year or two ago after I had a co-worker claim that I was upsetting her religious beliefs by not blessing her and using gesundheit instead. Someone very intelligently commented in response that the custom of saying “bless you” is derived from the days when people feared the sneezer’s death was imminent. I also disagree that saying gesundheit is somehow unpatriotic. Countless words used in the English language are derived from other languages.

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