This without thinking. I was sitting in

This
ethnography explores the cultural context behind sneezing in public and the public’s
response, both verbal and nonverbal, identifying when is an appropriate time to
sneeze, and what social rules become apparent when someone sneezes. This
ethnography is similar to the concepts we have studied in class in how there
are cultural rules we have in society that dictate our behavior, and sneezing
is one rule that we have been cultured to respond to, either with a message or
some sort of acknowledgement of the sneezer.

 

The basis for this ethnography was
to analyze and understand what sneezing in public and the public’s response
tell us about American culture.  I picked
this topic because I find it interesting how people can say “bless you” so
quickly after someone sneezes as though it is so ingrained in our brains that
it almost seems we do it without thinking. I was sitting in Anthropology class
and someone in the back of the lecture room sneezed and in my head, I
automatically said “bless you”. It was like I knew that we were in a quiet
setting and I could not say “bless you” out loud because: 1. It would disrupt
the professor and 2. The person who sneezed in the back wouldn’t hear me.  My response to that sneeze inspired me to
research why we in American culture say “bless you” and the implications and
responsibilities that a sneeze has for those around the sneezer as well as the
varying responses to different sneezes.

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Going into this ethnography I did
not have many biases as I didn’t know much about people’s responses to sneezes
except for that of my own response of “bless you”. I knew how I reacted and
what triggered me to say “bless you” or in what situation it was appropriate to
say “bless you”, but other than that I had an open mind to hearing why people
said what they said and watching their nonverbal responses to the sneezer.

I did not know much about this
topic, I knew that everybody around me would always say either “bless you” or a
“God bless you” to whoever sneezed, whether they were a friend or stranger, but
I did not know why we say whatever it is people say in response to sneezes and
especially how as a culture we are so trained to say it automatically or within
a few seconds of a sneeze.

In order to understand why people
respond to sneezes the way they do, it is pertinent to know the history of
where “God bless you” or any response to a sneeze originated from. Sneezing is
the body’s way of getting rid of irritants in the nasal cavity, something the
body does automatically and a person cannot stop a sneeze once it comes on. In
the Middle Ages, during the Bubonic Plague, some people were reported dying
while sneezing, so to prevent this the people created a custom of saying “May
god bless you” or something similar to that wish of good health. There is
another theory that blessing someone was “bestowed to protect both the person
sneezed and others around him” because some ancient cultures believed sneezing
forced the evil spirits out of the body, therefore endangering the health of the
person and those around him (“Does Your Heart”). Understanding the background as
to why we respond to sneezes helps to understand why it is still prevalent
today as a polite social convention and part of American culture.

In this ethnography, I used a few
different methods, all of them yielding good, solid results. I performed interviews
when someone responded to a sneeze, no matter the response, and asked those
individuals why they responded to a sneeze in that manner and what their first
reaction is when someone sneezes. In addition to interviews I used participant
observation where I collected data without directly interacting with any one
person but rather just observing them. While doing interviews I was able to
gather nonverbal responses to sneezes that people exhibited, usually watching
for body language. To supplement this data I also used various articles and
research. While most of my work included participant observation and interviews,
I was able to gather good insight through online sources that I was not able to
directly see in my time observing people. 

While the data I gathered could be
subjective, I believe that the way I observed the environments I was in were
free of my judgment and my preconceived ideas as to what I was hearing or
observing. The data I collected was recorded, for interviews, and written down
like I heard from the informants I observed. The responses were thought of by
the informants only, without any suggestion or interruption from me. With this
in mind during my data gathering stage, I was able to get solid data that
answers my ethnographic question I started with. 

Throughout my observations I found
somewhat of the same responses to people who sneezed, but dependent on how far
away the sneezer was. I observed people sneezing in four different locations, a
supermarket, a library, a large classroom and on the street.  The sneeze responses varied slightly
depending on location but as Stanley Aronson, founding dean of the Warren
Alpert Medical School of Brown University states, “a sneeze anywhere in the
world will elicit an immediate response even from neighboring strangers.”
(Aronson 11) The library setting was the quietest setting I observed and while
some sneezes I noticed went unnoticed by others, whether it was all the
students wearing headphones or just ignoring it, that I do not know. When in
the quiet setting such as the library I noticed that some people would try to
hold in the sneeze and if they could not, they would say “excuse me” quickly
after. While going into this observation I thought that a person’s response
would have more to do with how close the sneezer was for them to give the
obligatory “bless you” but I found that the more sneeze responses happen when
you are around people you know. In one setting in the supermarket there was a
young woman who sneezed very loudly and her two friends zealously said “jeez,
that was a big one, God bless you” because of their relationship they could say
something like that. In class I noticed that people were more likely to respond
to someone that they knew, whether they were sitting close or not, than someone
that they didn’t know.  I asked one
classmate when someone sneezed nearby what his first response to a sneeze is
and he said, “just stop” not “bless you”, of course he does not say this out
loud to strangers but in his head, that is his instinctive reaction.

Sneezing comes in all forms and
the responses to sneezing are also unique, a lot of weight goes into how well a
person knows the sneezer and what kind of relationship they have established.
While many people have had a lifetime practicing sneezing etiquette to a point
where it almost meaningless, other people have come up with unique ways of “blessing”
their friends or family. In one instance, I heard a couple talking and their conversation
was interrupted by a powerful sneeze coming from the woman, which in response
the man goes ahead and loudly proclaimed “God bless America”.  This is seen as funny when there is a
relationship already established between the person who sneezed and the person
blessing them, but is inappropriate or rude if uttered to a stranger. During my
observations, I picked up on the fact that few responses to sneezing were
something besides the standard “bless you” but nonetheless there were other sayings
that people came up with suited specifically as a response to someone that they
had a close relationship with. While people may not realize this when they are blessing
someone, whether out of politeness or because of a knee-jerk reaction, saying “bless
you” or any form of a blessing is tied to a form of relationship building. Relationships
are built when a two or more people are connected in some form and in terms of
sneezing, there is a connection going on when a sneezer gets blessed. It may be
a simple connection that implies a “we’re all human and we all have a common
body function, sneeze, so I’m going to acknowledge your sneeze with a ‘bless
you'” kind of response or in the case of the couple above, it is a relationship
built on many prior sneezes and therefore a response can be funny or outrageous
and still be considered a blessing non-the least.

Furthermore, while observing in a
supermarket I picked up on the fact that some people avoided saying anything at
all, while others had the knee-jerk reaction to say “bless you!”
enthusiastically. In one instance I asked John1,
who I could tell heard the sneeze but did not respond with anything, why he
didn’t say anything in response to the sneeze he heard. His response was, “I
heard it but I am an atheist and I don’t believe in saying “God bless you” for
something as simple as a sneeze. Besides, there was two people that told him
“bless you” anyways.” I valued his honesty and it made me think of a whole
other aspect to sneezing, which is how religious saying “God bless you” is.
While John felt perfectly comfortable not saying “bless you” because of his
values, I wonder if there are other atheists that say “bless you” because that
is what they think is expected of them. While I can’t say I interviewed any
other Atheists, I think that would be another interesting aspect of sneezing
etiquette rules and response that could be looked at.

In addition to responses sneezers
received, there were also certain looks they got depending on how they sneezed,
whether it was loud or sounded gross, or if they did not exhibit proper
sneezing etiquette. When observing proper sneeze etiquette, I noticed most
people to cover their sneeze with either their hands, which got some dirty looks
from nearby strangers on the street, or they would sneeze into the crook of
their arm. The latter sneezing etiquette elicited a much better response in
people and less judgmental looks because this was how people perceived how we,
as a society, should cover our sneezes, as well as to avoid germs being spread
everywhere. When watching people sneeze, there a few different ways people
perform their sneezes. The most common sneeze I noted was a person who would
cover their nose and muffle their sneeze in order to limit the distraction of
the sneeze to their immediate environment, out of courtesy or how they were
taught to sneeze in public. The other form of sneezing was the nasally, loud
phlegm sneeze, which was received by nearby strangers as “gross”.  The louder, more powerful the sneeze was,
gathered some quizzical looks from nearby strangers no matter the location that
the sneezer sneezed in.  When I asked one
participant, John, what he thought of the powerful phlegm sneeze he had just
heard he stated, “that is nasty and the germs were probably flung all over me”.
He was disgusted more by the fact he had gotten germs on him and his response
was also evident in a few other people that I observed.

I found these reactions
interesting because everyone is brought up differently but something a considerable
amount of the people I talked to and observed had been cultured in sneezing
etiquette. “Even weirder is that, eventually, it was not only common to respond
to people’s sneezes, it was considered rude not to. So society has, at least
partially, been built on the notion that ignoring another person’s bodily
functions is tantamount to an insult.” (Hagen 39) Hagen, describes this notion
very well, and his statement applied to the cultural aspects I observed, no matter
the location, when a sneeze erupted there was some kind of response by the
nearby public. I think it is a pertinent observation to keep in mind going
forward that is similar to the dirt framework that we discussed in class from
Culture Builders, people will respond to their sense of dirty or gross in the
same way with sneezes. “People are branded as unclean because their behavior is
somehow in conflict with the order that the majority is accustomed to viewing
as the only correct one,” shows the cultural response to a sneeze can be seen
as unclean if it is a gross sneeze or can be seen as rude if the majority of
people say, “bless you” and there is one person that does not (Frykman 165).

To conclude this ethnographic
approach to sneezing in American culture, it is important to look at the
cultural aspect of sneezing etiquette and how someone can be perceived gross
from their lack of covering their mouth or having a loud, phlegmy sneeze.  This data I have collected answers how
Americans have been ingrained with social rules regarding how they should
sneeze and how they should respond to a sneezer that is pertinent to their
everyday lives but goes unnoticed most for the time due to its prevalence in
culture. In class, we have discussed how people are influenced by cultural
rules and how they can be shamed or feel left out if they are not part of the
ritual that they observe, in this case sneezing. While there may be more
explanations as to why we continue this ritual of saying a variation of “bless
you” when someone sneezes or it may just be a simple human acknowledgement of
another’s presence.

1
All names in this ethnography are pseudonyms.