How and where did this social behavior originate?
Historically, sneezes were thought to be an omen or warning from the gods, according to W. David Myers, a professor of history at Fordham University. “For European Christians, when the first plague that weakened the now Christian Roman Empire around 590, Pope Gregory the Great believed that a sneeze was an early warning sign of plague, so he commanded Christians to respond to a sneeze with a blessing,” he said.
In ancient times, people believed that sneezing would allow evil spirits to enter your body, and saying “God bless you” kept out those evil spirits.
“That was certainly another belief,” said Dr. Myers. “But other responses to sneezing — Gesundheit, in German; Salud, in Spanish — came from the idea that a sneeze is a sign of divine beneficence.”
Of all the random things that happen that could be associated with God, why sneezing?
According to Dr. Omar Sultan Haque, a psychiatrist and social scientist at Harvard Medical School, although the onset of sneezes appears to be random, attributing divine blessing may function to explain things when ordinary explanations are lacking. “Because of the deep connection in the human psyche between religion, cleanliness and the emotion of disgust, invoking God after sneezing is more likely, as compared to invoking God after other anomalous events like a random piece of debris hitting someone on the shoulder,” he said.
Kaley Komanski, a social media manager based in Orlando, recently taught herself to say “gesundheit” rather than “bless you” when people sneeze. “It took a few weeks for it to become second nature and to feel natural,” she said. “I think it’s super uncomfortable to hear ‘God bless you’ all the time. It’s probably worth mentioning that I’m an atheist, which really drove me to edit my word choice when people sneeze.”