Thursday, 14 July 2011

181: Gesundheit!

CAUTION: Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.

First things first, I've got no problem with politeness. If anything, there's not enough of it around these days. But I'm not here to go into that, and Michael Legge is already doing sterling work in that field.

But is there such a thing as being too polite? Y'know, just 'politeness for the sake of it'? Misguided politeness?

Scenario 1
What if, for example, someone in the same room as you sneezed? If there's just you and that person, you'd probably say "bless you". And if that person is also polite, they'd say "thank you" for you doing that. I doubt very much that you'd then reply "you're welcome", because that would just be taking it too far, wouldn't it?

Scenario 2
But what if there's a group of you in the room? What if person A sneezes, then B & C say "bless you"? If you (D) and E don't say anything, are you both being rude? A has already received two blessings for an involuntary bodily act, isn't that enough?

Scenario 3
What if A sneezes and no-one says anything? B, C, D & E seem quite rude, but D and E are only acting as they did in Scenario 2, and it was okay then wasn't it?

Scenario 4
What if A sneezes around six times a day, in a very self-indulgent way*1? The first time, B and C will say "bless you", but after that, he's generally ignored. Upon being ignored, A does a little disapproving affectation, as if by ignoring his nasal outburst, we've all collectively broken into his house and rubbed poo onto his family photos*2.

Now, can you guess which one of those four scenarios has prompted me to write this?

It's not that I don't see the point in politeness, I do. But this 'bless you' malarky is essentially an empty acknowledgement of a sneeze. Unless you're in the clergy, you're not actually blessing someone. You could exclaim 'why, curse you!' and it'd have the same practical outcome (apart from perhaps shocking sneezer-A into shutting the hell up*3). It's not like polite society offers similar sentiments for coughing, burping or farting, no matter how dramatic the outburst. They're all essentially projecting germs into the air, and if anything are rather frowned upon.

So obviously, there are some religious overtones to this remark, but where does it come from? From what I understand there are two origins:

Firstly, back in the middle ages, it was believed (although I don't know how universally) that when you sneezed, it was an evil spirit exiting your body. You'd be acknowledged with a 'bless you' to help pardon your sins and cleanse your soul. Bear in mind, the spirit has just left your body; if anything, the 'bless you' should have been used as an invocation to sneeze. Saying it afterwards is like saying 'get well soon' after someone's had their final all-clear scan.

Secondly, it was used at the time of the Black Death. The idea was that if a person sneezed, it was an indicator that they could well be infected with Bubonic Plague, and the 'bless you' was a pre-cursor to their eventual demise. It's used more logically in this sense, but let's face it: if you're in a room with someone who has the plague and is sneezing, you're pretty fucked too. In which case, 'bless me' or 'cheers, you absolute bastard' would be more appropriate.

So what do you think the chances are that the office-sneezer has a case of either a) evil spirits or b) bubonic plague?
Yeah, me neither. It's more likely to be a low-level dust allergy. I don't think you need to be blessed for a low-level dust allergy, although I may well be wrong there...

Scenario 5

'A': What's this? The last thing I remember, I was crossing the road, I saw a bus, and now I'm surrounded by clouds and that! And a big man with a beard in a huge throne! Does this mean..?

God: Yes, you're sort of dead I'm afraid.

'A': Crikey. Still, it looks like I've come to the right place though, eh?

God: Erm, yeah. Don't make yourself too comfortable. This is just your 'interview'.

'A': My interview? ...but I've lived a good life. I've been kind to others, charitable and non-judgemental, and tried to live in service of You at every opportunity...

God: Well yes, and that is appreciated-

'A': And what about that time I saved that little boy from drowning? He grew up to be a lifeguard, so he could save the lives of others! I need an interview after that?

God: Of course, but I've got to look at all the paperwork, and-

'A': And you're remembering the time that I walked from Lands End to John O'Groats to raise money for missionaries to go to the Third World and give out vaccines?

God: Yes, yes. Listen, do you remember that office you worked in during 2011?

'A': Oh yes, I think I was allergic to the carpet or something. I sneezed quite a lot in there.

God: Bingo. Now usually, you were given a post-sneeze-blessing, or 'PSB' as we call them here...

'A': Of course, they were a polite bunch.

God: We-e-e-ell..., there was one Monday afternoon when you were alone in the office with that Geordie bloke. You sneezed, several times, and he didn't bless you.

'A': ...well he had his iPod on, he probably didn't hear me.

God: Oh, he heard you. He just didn't issue you with a PSB.

'A': Well maybe he didn't want to interrupt the entertaining podcast he was listening to, or-

God: Let's be honest, I think it's more likely that he doesn't see the value in what he considers to be, at best, an outdated superstition masquerading as common courtesy.

'A': Well it's a good thing we know the truth, eh?

God: Yeah. About that. Under the system we're running, the absence of a blessing actually counts as a negative-mark. And as you know, I only allow the best in here. So I'm afraid you, erm, can't come in.

'A': this a joke? I can't come into Heaven because of someone else's rudeness?

God: Yeah. It's kind a bug in the system. We're looking to fix it in the next upgrade, but until then...

'A': I can't, like, do some kind of penance or Purgatory thing to clear it?

God: Afraid not. Under the current system, you're only allowed to work off your own sins. What you're thinking of would be classified as apologising for things other people have done. And then we'd be getting all sorts of unrepentant buggers through the gates, all 'excused' by others. That'd be ridiculous, wouldn't it? Ha-haa...

'A': So can I come in once the bug's fixed?

God: It doesn't really work like that.

'A': So what now? I go to Hell? Actual Hell?

God: Pretty much. Look on the bright side though, lot of flames - there are going to be some some great barbecues. I hear the peppered steak's amazing.

'A': Peppered..? I... you... [skulks off in the direction of Hades]

God: [rolls eyes incredulously] What did I say..?

So, as God correctly surmised, when someone sneezes and you say "bless you", you're not just being polite, you're also perpetuating an outdated superstition. But I suppose if you want to prevent your family, friends and colleagues going to Hell, you'd better carry on doing it.

You're very, very welcome.

*1 I can't really explain it, it just is.
*2 We haven't, but if it'd put a stop to this, I'd consider it.
*3 ...I might try that one.

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.

• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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