Tradition is a powerful thing. It can create a sense of continuity, pass knowledge down through generations and make people feel a part of something greater than themselves. But it can also be a trap. If never challenged, it can lead to the sort of blind obedience and ritualised ignorance that prevent change and social evolution. This might sound like the opening to a rant about one of the huge, contentious issues of our time like religious belief, the institution of marriage or how on earth they got the funding to make eight Fast & Furious films, but it isn’t. Those things, apart from perhaps Vin Diesel’s mysterious popularity, are regularly, robustly challenged and the debate, regardless of which side of the argument you’re on, is extremely healthy. What’s more, those issues are so complex and nuanced, with, once again, the definite exclusion of Mr. Diesel, that there might well be no single point, however persuasive, that can make a significant shift in their perception. Certainly not one that I’m likely to come up with, I’m sure of that. The area in which I think it might genuinely be possible to move society forward into enlightenment is a far simpler thing. It happens every day and there is just no need for it in the modern world. It’s about time we all admitted that sneezing is a simple bodily function. Nobody has the plague anymore and Satan is not going to get into your soul via your nose. It’s just an irritation of some small, sensitive hairs. So why do we have a daft little ceremony every time it happens?
Of course, the standard response is, ” because it’s polite!”. Now I’m all for good manners, but more often than not there is some underlying practical purpose to them. Eating with your mouth open is impolite because half-chewed food is something nobody wants to see, holding a door open for someone smooths the general flow of the world and saying please and thank you is a way of letting someone know that they’re appreciated, but who does the little “Bless You Thank You” dance actually benefit? It cannot seriously be considered common courtesy to draw attention to someone violently excreting material from their bodies. It’s certainly lucky that it didn’t start a trend or we’d all be inviting people along to the bathroom to scare the diarrhoea demons away with a solemn, “solidarity brother”.
Surely the polite thing to do when someone sneezes is to just let the afflicted person go unnoticed, rather than turning to them and saying, in essence, “I acknowledge that some fairly unpleasant stuff just came out of you”. At the very least, they shouldn’t be forced to reply. Do people really enjoy hearing the viscous, bubbling, “dank you” that gristles out of the sneezer’s nose as they dutifully complete the ritual while groping for tissues? How is this absurd exchange pleasant for anyone and what purpose can it possibly serve? If it didn’t exist, you would never invent it. It’s just unexamined tradition, sneaking under the ironically green blob-speckled radar for too long.
Yes, I know that “bless you” only takes a second to say and it’s considered by so many to be just a harmless pleasantry, but it makes no sense when such simple things are surrounded with such pointless fuss, and this time I’m really not talking about Vin Diesel. The ritual, in this case, has taken on a life outside of what it originally pertained to. It’s not polite because it acknowledges the danger of disease, or because it’s a gesture of spiritual support, it’s just polite because it’s always been done, and that really isn’t a good reason to do anything. That’s the kind of thinking that gets you idiotic rules of etiquette, entrenched snobbery and a series of really awful movies about angry people blowing up cars.
So I’ve given it up. In a helpless, insignificant stand for the forces of rationality, I no longer say “bless you” when someone sneezes. But I do still reply when it’s said to me, because respecting someone else’s customs IS polite and for an actually good reason. But privately, every time I hear, “bless you” a tiny voice in my head, just before I respond, says, “curse you”. Thank you.