This pandemic has given me cause to think more critically about the sneeze. I was taught that a sneeze is the human body’s way, as with our pet dogs and parakeets, to expel something the nose (or beak) finds noxious. I was taught to cover my nose and mouth with my hand to lower the sneeze’s noise and not spray my droplets on others.
Since we’ve been practicing social distancing, cameras have proven that a sneeze, unfortunately, can propel COVID-19-laced droplets across a room, as far as 15 feet away.
We’re taught these days to cover our noses and mouths with the inside of our elbow instead of our hands. This makes me wonder whether elbow bumping is any healthier than handshaking.
Some ancient people thought a sneeze was a warning or some kind of message sent from the gods. Pliny the Elder, 70 CE, in his Natural History described a popular practice of saluting the sneezer. Pope Gregory, 600 CE, believing that a sneeze was an early warning sign of bubonic plague, issued a papal decree ordering every Christian to say “God bless you” (in Latin, deus te benedicat) to a sneezer, believing the blessing might stave off the plague.
I grew up hearing people respond to a sneeze with gesundheit, the German word for health, a response meaning something like “Good health to you over there, good buddy.”
Why does a sneeze, even a muffled, polite one, evoke a one-word gesundheit from the secular person, or a three-word “God bless you” from the religious, while a covered cough or a sniffing nose does not?
Maybe the response now is a pure-and-simple, long-conditioned, knee-jerk habit that tells sneezers we care about their well-being. Being polite and kind doesn’t hurt anyone. And the price is right; it’s gratis.