As it turns out, nothing.
In English-speaking western cultures, we say “bless you” or “God bless” when someone sneezes. It’s a very old custom, and there are many unconfirmed theories as to its origins.
There is written evidence that English speakers in Europe have been saying “bless you” when someone sneezes since 77 AD, or 1,937 years ago. The tradition most likely extends back much further than the first know writing of it.
Passed down generation after generation, it has been deeply ingrained into our repertoire of social responses. Like please and thank you, we are taught to say bless you through social conditioning for politeness as soon as we begin to say our first words.
We react to a sneeze by uttering this obligatory response because its omission would seem glaring.
But in Taiwan, a sneeze warrants no response or acknowledgement. And, when I think about it, this seems perfectly reasonable. After all, there is no formulaic verbal response (in English) for hiccups, burps, farts, or other sounds the body may spontaneously emit without its owner’s consent.
So why is it so difficult for me to remain silent when I find myself within earshot of a sneezer? Social conditioning and habit, of course. Additionally, my other language, Spanish (like many European languages) also acknowledges sneezing by saying salud (health.) So, Chinese is my first encounter with a language that lacks such a phrase. As a result, I’m learning to retrain my social response to sneezes.
What, if anything, is said in your language(s) when someone sneezes? I’m curious!
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