Dear Crabby,

The Seattle Times recently published a question sent to Marie McIntyre, carried by the McClatchy-Tribune News Service, asking how to handle a co-worker who scolded the writer for not blessing her when she sneezed. McIntyre said blessing sneezes “has become an expected social custom. So the real question is not whether these blessings have a valid purpose, but whether the relationship with your office mate matters to you.”

We had a similar situation in our office and assumed a co-worker never said “bless you” and didn’t responded to others when they said “bless you” due to strong religious beliefs. She no longer works with us and we’ve lost touch so we can’t ask her if our supposition was correct and that she feels blessing others is wrong, or if she actually feels that saying “bless you” is just a meaningless gesture. Do you think a religion (like Jehovah’s Witness) might actually be offended by this practice? Have you come across this in your office?

Sincerely,

Hoping Not to Offend or Appear Rude in the Future

Dear Hoping Not to Offend or Appear Rude in the Future,

Well, you’re not off to a great start. You’ve offended me in two ways. First, your pen name is unreasonably long. Second, you’ve made me do research to answer your question.

But before I get to that, I’ll say that I basically agree with Marie McIntyre, who is apparently some OTHER advice columnist you’ve been seeing on the side. What am I to you? Some guy you can just use when you need him? And then toss aside? Like, like, hmm, like, um ... some guy you just use when you need him and then toss aside? (I’m not great with metaphors today. Also, it turns out you offended me in three ways.)

That notwithstanding, I looked up her column, and I think she’s basically got it right; worrying about giving and getting bless-yous is a pretty silly thing to do. But, unlike your precious Marie McIntyre, I did a little Googling and learned that some people do abstain from blessing sneezers based on their religious beliefs. So that’s a different wrinkle.

Just how big a faux pas it is to bless one of these folks, I don’t know. I’m not sure that the sociotheological journals have given the matter its due attention. But anecdotally, from what I’ve seen online, it seems that even those who think it’s wrong to bless sneezers generally aren’t offended when you do it. They see it as the well-intended gesture of social nicety that it is.

Now, it would probably be a different story if you knew someone didn’t believe in blessing sneezers and you made a point of doing it just to bug them. But, as I know from your 10-word pen name, that’s not your intention. Ultimately, it comes down to this: Yes, there probably are some people who don’t much care for “bless you,” but it’s not something to go around fretting about on a day-to-day basis. If someone explains to you that their religion abstains from it, I’d try to respect that and avoid saying it.

And, finally, no, it’s not something I’ve come across in my own professional life. But it’s not entirely different from an effort I made years ago when I was working in a small office with a guy who didn’t much care for taking the Lord’s name in vain. I have no such qualms myself, and newspaper offices are pretty lenient about salty language. Still, I didn’t want to be a jerk, so I did my best to stick to secular cursing around that particular co-worker. You don’t, after all, have to agree with someone’s beliefs to respect them. It’s part of being a decent person. But you already know that.

Hope that helps.

Sincerely,

Crabby