How to politely respond to sneezing across cultures

Throughout human history, sneezing has been considered an act worthy of comment. In Britain, you’re generally met with a polite “bless you” in response, but the polite reaction to sneezing across cultures obviously differs across the globe and, fascinatingly, it’s a good indication of a culture’s beliefs and history.

In ancient times, some cultures believed that sneezing was a sign of a devil exiting the body. When Odysseus’ wife hears her son sneeze in The Odyssey, she interprets it as a sign that her husband will come home safely. In Japan, a sneeze indicates that someone is speaking well of you somewhere. In Mexico, a sneeze means your partner is cheating on your with someone called Sancho.

For those countries with a long tradition of christianity, a common response is “bless you”, or “God bless you”. Some believe that this originated during the 6th century when the bubonic plague was sweeping across Europe, with Pope Gregory the Great instigating the blessing as a means of protection – albeit useless – from the deadly pandemic.

There’s no end to ‘sneezing across cultures’ trivia. But whatever the bizarre origins of the response, it is quite useful to know how to react when you’re abroad. Learning the nuances of a new language is challenging enough, but when you throw in colloquialisms and basic etiquette, it becomes a nightmare. Here are a few responses to be armed with:

Sneezing across cultures: 6 different examples of responses

1. “Health!”

The common German-language response to sneezing—Gesundheit!—simply means “health.” “Gesundheit” came into American vernacular by way of German-speaking immigrants. Other languages have equivalent exhortations, like the Spanish “Salud!” or the Maltese “Evviva!” The Russian version, “Будьте здоровы” is a more forceful “be healthy.”

2. “Live long and prosper.”

The full Turkish response to a sneeze is straight out of Star Trek: “çok yaşa, rahat yaşa” means “live long and prosper,” though it’s often shortened just to “live long.” The response, “sen de gör,” literally translates to “you see it, too.”

3. “God smother you!”

A common Portuguese response to sneezing is “Santinho!” or “Little saint!” However, you may also hear “Deus te abafe,” a phrase that roughly means “God smother you!” (It’s translated by some as “May god put a blanket over you,” which is a far better thing to imagine.)

4. “To your wishes!”

In French, it’s polite to express a hope that all your sneezy companion’s wishes come true. The French version of bless you, “à tes souhaits,” means “to your wishes.” A second sneeze is greeted with “à tes amours,” or “to your loves.”

5. “The weather will be nice tomorrow!”

After the first two sneezes, the Dutch welcome a third sneeze with the phrase, “Morgen mooi weer!” or “The weather will be nice tomorrow!”

6. “Grow!”

In his 1976 ethnography of Zulu culture, author Axel-Ivar Berglund reports that “of a man who sneezes, it is said ‘Thuthuka.’” Or, in other words, “grow!”

Apart from helping you navigate sneezing across cultures Country Navigator is also an online and mobile platform that prepares global managers, executives and assignees on how to work and adapt to working across over 100 cultures. It combines assessments, country content and a range of e-learning modules.

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About the Author

Laura Geaves

Laura Geaves

Having experienced globally diverse cultures within a multitude of organizations, Laura's aim is to support clients in building a borderless workforce.

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