Help! I’m trapped in a spiral of superstition

10th April, 2010

Dear Economist,
When I sneeze, people often say to me – I know not why – “bless you”. I do not reciprocate when others sneeze, for I refuse to subscribe to any form of superstition.
It follows that my well-wishers clearly are superstitious. Therefore, my exceptional politesse dictates that I ought to offer them a blessing whenever they expel extraneous sinal mucus.
But perhaps the whole of humankind believes that everyone else is superstitious and so this absurd tradition continues between people who ought to know better, each of them fearing that they will cause offence. It is an awful superstition-fearing spiral. How, dear economist, to break out of it?
Hugh Costello

Dear Hugh,

There seem to be competing explanations for the “bless you” convention – that the sneeze has driven out an evil spirit, that the blessing wards off the bubonic plague, or even that a blessing restarts the heart after the sneeze stops it.

You conclude that anyone who says “bless you” either believes one of these things, or is indulging another person’s presumed superstition. A more likely explanation is that saying “bless you” sends a signal that you have noticed another person’s existence. It is a weak signal, but not saying “bless you” sends a strong signal that you do not care to acknowledge the presence of another human being.

Here is a parallel. When I wish a colleague “good morning” it is not because I believe doing so will cause a good morning to spring into existence. It is because not saying “good morning” is rude – doubly so if she has said “good morning” to me.

You seem a literal-minded fellow, Hugh. When you addressed me as “dear” economist, were you expressing romantic feelings for me? If so, I am afraid I have some bad news.

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