Bless you

wildflower offering in church

Had a laugh reading about protestors drowning out a pro-Trump agitator by chanting ‘bless your heart’ over the top of his shouting. We’re on a rocky road, developing our capacity to be civil to those with opposing ideologies.

I remember deciding as a kid to avoid the word “bless”. I was worried it would undermine my atheist credentials. Such a serious twelve year old. Yet somehow, I could not stop myself saying ‘bless you’ when people sneezed.

If you’re in a meeting with people you’ve just met and someone sneezes, you can rely on at least one person saying ‘bless you’. Sometimes the sneezer will respond, implicitly: ‘thank you for intending an improvement in my health, you really saved my bacon there’.

But if you’re in a library or a train and someone sneezes, no-one says boo. Apparently you need to be introduced before you’re allowed to bless someone. We seem to be designed for limited empathy with strangers, or at least, staged engagement.

It’d be great if we had a mechanism for trialling new social rituals that increase empathy without putting us at risk or obligation.

I’m creating the sneezing convention: when someone sneezes near a stranger, the strangers all introduce themselves with one sentence. “I’m Bret; I like sad songs”. Then the stranger says “bless you”, and they all return to silence.

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