Europe's sneezing customs and superstitions
Sneezing is a universal experience, and, although customs and superstitions about sneezing differ, blessing someone after they sneeze is common all over Europe
Sneezing is the uncontrollable bodily quirk that unites us all. While it’s impossible to stop yourself from sneezing, you’d think we would at least have some control over what we say in response to one. As it turns out, blessing someone after they sneeze is something that people across Europe do without even thinking.
While no one knows for certain why we’ve carried this old-aged custom, almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of European nations react to a sneeze by expressing well wishes like ‘to your health’ or simply ‘health’. In light of this, online tutoring experts at Preply have explored the sneezing etiquette of 45 countries around Europe, to help travellers build connections with locals through this simple social interaction.
Reacting to a sneeze is quite common in the UK, with people saying "bless you" to the person who sneezes. While you won’t get chastised for not saying it, it’s considered good manners to acknowledge the sneeze.
There are many theories explaining the reason behind the blessing. Sneezing was believed to expel evil spirits from the body, so by blessing that person, you’ll help prevent the unwanted spirits from returning. Modern-day superstition has given the bodily function different meanings. One sneeze is unlucky, two is lucky, and three will grant you a wish. No one knows what happens after the three-sneeze mark, but hopefully, fate will make allowances for you during hay fever season.
À vos souhaits, or à tes souhaits if you’re speaking to a friend, is the common response to a sneeze in France. The literal translation is "to your wishes" which is just another way of blessing someone. While this stays similar to the Brits, the French also grant another blessing on the second sneeze—à vos amours. This means "to your loves".
"In France, blessing someone after sneezing has its roots in the 14th-century plague epidemic"
In France, blessing someone after sneezing has its roots in the 14th-century plague epidemic. A sneeze was meant to be one of the first symptoms and so offering good wishes was a way to express care and good health to someone. In modern-day France, a sneeze means that someone is speaking about you, most likely behind your back.
The most common way to bless someone in Spain is by saying Jesús after they sneeze—no translation needed for this one. The Spanish started expressing the Saviour’s name to prevent the devil from corrupting the souls of those who sneeze. Old customs can get a bit dark but this is an old belief. Many people today prefer to say ¡salud!, which means "health" or "cheers".
In modern times, the Spanish share a similar superstitious belief to the French. If you sneeze once, it’s a sign that someone is thinking about you. However, if you sneeze twice, you should keep your eyes peeled for a secret crush as someone is thinking about you affectionately.
People in Germany say gesundheit to someone who sneezes. This word translates to "health" in English but some might recognise it from an Oktoberfest toast. Gesundheit is a term used by many English speakers, mainly in the US, as a way of saying cheers.
"Gesundheit is used by English speakers in the US as a way of saying cheers"
Gesundheit is also the word to bless someone in Austria, Switzerland, and Lichtenstein, after they sneeze. A fun sneezing superstition in Austria is that it’s bad luck to sneeze while looking at the moon. It’s also bad luck to sneeze before breakfast.
Countries across Europe have variations of the German blessing, with, gesondheet used in Luxembourg and gezondheid used in both the Netherlands and Belgium. Interestingly, there’s an old Flemish belief in Belgium that sneezing during a conversation confirms the truth of what’s being said.
Sneezing in Italy
In Italy, the polite way to acknowledge a sneeze is by saying salute. This is also a translation for "health". Italians are notoriously fond of their superstitions and as it goes, hearing a cat sneeze is a sign that money is coming your way.
A bride can also look forward to a good marriage if she hears a cat sneeze on her big day. However, you might want to block your ears after the first sneeze, as three could be a sign that you’re coming down with a cold. It might also be a sign to keep your distance from the cat.
Denmark, Norway and Sweden share the same sneezing courtesy—prosit. The meaning differs slightly between the languages with prosit meaning "may it help" in Danish, "may it be of benefit" in Norwegian, and "may it be good" in Swedish.
"Denmark, Norway, and Sweden share a sneezing courtesy, but the meaning differs slightly"
A common superstition in the Scandinavian countries is that sneezing brings good luck while neglecting to say prosit brings bad luck. In Sweden, sneezing is also said to let you know when your enemy has mentioned your name.
An expert opinion
Sylvia Johnson, a language expert at Preply, commented:
“By doing your homework and respecting etiquette, you are showing that you value and understand the cultural differences of others. It demonstrates your willingness to engage with and appreciate different ways of thinking, living, and interacting. People are more likely to connect with those who make an effort to understand and respect their cultural practices, which can lead to fostering better relationships."
"What’s more, different cultures have varying ideas about what is considered polite and respectful behaviour. Researching etiquette helps you avoid cultural pitfalls and stops you inadvertently offending others due to unawareness or ignorance of their customs. So when in Rome, do as Romans do or in other words when you are in an unfamiliar situation, follow the lead of those who know the ropes.”
Banner photo: Woman sneezing (credit: Andrea Piacquadio (Pexels))
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