At some point, you must accept that a sneeze is a social contract. One party can have a social pass for an instinct driven, albeit loud and unexpected, noise, and the other party must decide to notate it or not. Frankly, it is rare to hear an audible sneeze in public without some kind of acknowledgment.
But why? The long ingrained social habit arose through the ancient belief that it was the soul trying to escape the body. And it remains, as evidenced by the great Simpsons episode where Milhouse tells Bart how “saying ‘god bless you!’ crams it back in.
An awkward saurus often finds herself in the same scenario time and again. Now that allergy season is upon us, the influx of pollen has caused the awkward sneeze protocol to be implemented. Since I haven’t really perfected any social method of interaction, what we present to you today is more of a theory, a work in progress, if you will.
The first and most important step is to identify the sneeze from other utterances. Very few people make the comically accurate “achoo!” sound. Graciously, most of the middle of the bell curve produce a similar sound. I have come to believe this is deliberate and done so to make everyone’s life easier. If you are one of these people, the awkward saurus thanks you.
The next step is very important. Determine your proximity to the sneezer. If the sneezer is relatively far away, it’s not likely that they’ll even hear you. In fact, they may not know you’re there at all. If a response may startle the already allergenic person, the awkward saurus wouldn’t risk it.
Should you decide to respond, it is important to determine the appropriateness of your response. The standard “bless you” of course is most common, followed by “gesundheit.” I like my friend Eric’s response of “shut up” best, but it can only be used in certain circles without hurting people’s feelings or inciting a fist fight.
Do not challenge a sneeze. By this I mean don’t determine if it was a sneeze, don’t ask the “sneezer” for a second opinion. If you’re going to acknowledge it, just go ahead and say “bless you” and not, “was that a sneeze?” People will doubt your sincerity and think you’re making fun of them. No one wants to be the guy who fakes sneezes.
So, by now, you’re probably feeling pretty confident, right? You’re all ready to close the loop on the social contract. You hear the noise at appropriate proximity and with adequate certainty of utterances to occur. You open your mouth and begin to speak, then – WHAM! – another sneeze like sound.
Great, you think to yourself, we now have a confirmed sneeze based on the second one so our attempt to acknowledge is the right call. But, how many more are there? Do we attempt to acknowledge each one and for how long do we engage in this charade?
So, given our choices, if we haven’t said anything yet, wait until you’re sure the series is over, then acknowledge. If you’ve already spoken, you’re on the hook for each one at an exponential rate with exceptions for proximity and time related factors.
Exceptions also exist in scenarios wearing earbuds, loud concerts or bars, and I imagine, if one is completely alone. If a tree makes you sneeze in the woods, and no one’s around to hear it, do you still have to say, “bless you?”