The seemingly innocuous act of sneezing is curiously one of the clearest and most fascinating examples of how different human societies can be so similar and yet so different at the same time. Here is a quick rundown of the history of sneezing and how you must respond to an achooo! depending on where you’re travelling to these holidays.
The mere function of sneezing is quite simple. It’s a semi-autonomous response to expel foreign particles and nasty thingies from our nasal cavity. A sneeze in itself is quite harmless, but that explosion can represent a health hazard when the happily sneezing individual is infected with a disease.
A normal sneeze can produce some 40,000 droplets and can travel almost eight metres. That’s a lot of ground to spread an infection. The common custom of covering yourself ‘dab style’ with the inside of your elbow actually has a logic.
If you cover yourself with your hand, you’ll augment the chances of spreading the infection, as we use our hands to grab everything and will unknowingly be leaving traces of our nastiness wherever we go. Have you ever seen a zombie movie? I’m sure that’s how it all starts.
We haven’t always known what we know now about sneezes and infections. There was a time when society thought sneezes where messages from the gods, signs from destiny, of bad omens.
Ancient Greeks thought a sneeze was a prophetic signal from a deity, and in most of Asia, if you sneezed, that was thought to be the sign that somebody was talking about you.
In Japan and China, the superstition even went as far as devising a system to tell what kind of gossip was been aimed at you. If you only sneezed once, that person talking behind your back was saying good things, if you sneezed twice, that person was totally wrecking your rep. If you sneezed three times in a row, that means good news, that person is in love with you.
Yeah, kind of similar to how we feel about retweets these days…
Basically, all the responses we give today to a sneeze are born out of superstition. That “God bless you” that is prevalent in the English speaking world and that has been shortened over the years to “bless you,” originated around 6th century Europe, when the bubonic plague was decimating Europe and Christians invoked God after a sneeze for protection.
In the Spanish speaking world, an achoo! is answered by a quick “salud,” which means “health,” exact analog to the German’s “gesundheit.”
Are you going to Hawaii for the holidays? Don’t forget to say “kihe a mauli ola” which means “sneeze and live.”
Using the appropriate response when you’re travelling abroad can positively impress your local hosts and sends out the message that you are a polite traveller who cares for local culture and history.
Going to Italy for Christmas? “Salute.” Prefer the French Riviera? Undust your smuggest attitude to say “À tes souhaits” (something like a-tei-swey).
Are you planning on visiting South Africa? You’ll be a hero if you respond a sneeze with “thuthuka” if you want to practice your Zulu, or say “gesondheid” if you want to impress with your Afrikaans. Both expressions translate to something like, “to grow and prosper.”
If you’re travelling in places like China, India, Japan, Philippines, Taiwan, Singapore or Malaysia, just… don’t say anything. It’s not customary to respond to sneezes in those countries nowadays.
What to say in Ireland? Dia Leat (God be with you) How about Nigeria? Ndo (Sorry) Portugal? Santinho (Little saint).
A curious thing is that not all languages coincide with the same interpretation of the sound of a sneeze. While in English, the most common onomatopoeia is “achoo,” other cultures have a very different reading. The Czech say “hepsheek,” the Greek “Apsu” and those freaky Norwegians somehow interpret a sneeze as “atsj.”
So there you have it, this is why no two sneezes are ever the same. If you’re in a foreign culture, responding correctly to a sneeze can do wonders for you. Just make sure you tell everybody you learned here.