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Why do you say Bless you when people sneeze?
Is there good reason or history?

When someone sneeze, if I don't say Bless you, am I rude?

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+1. I've always wanted to ask. – ShreevatsaR Feb 28 '11 at 9:50
Not at all. It's just a nice thing to say and can sometimes bring up a giggle. – James Poulson Jul 3 '11 at 12:28
I'm not a fan of Bless you. I do say it sometimes, but only for politeness' sake, and only if there is no one else around to do the job of saying it! Whenever folks say it to me, it annoyingly interrupts the Excuse me that automatically follows my sneeze, as I also have to slip in a Thank you in between, as well! – Jimi Oke Jan 8 '12 at 5:02
up vote 10 down vote accepted

The following excerpt from howstuffworks.com gives some insight:

The phrase "God bless you" is attributed to Pope Gregory the Great, who uttered it in the sixth century during a bubonic plague epidemic (sneezing is an obvious symptom of one form of the plague).

The exchangeable term "gesundheit" comes from Germany, and it literally means "health." The idea is that a sneeze typically precedes illness. It entered the English language in the early part of the 20th century, brought to the United States by German-speaking immigrants.

For the most part, the various sneeze responses originated from ancient superstitions. Some people believed that a sneeze causes the soul to escape the body through the nose. Saying "bless you" would stop the devil from claiming the person's freed soul. Others believed the opposite: that evil spirits use the sneeze as an opportunity to enter a person's body. There was also the misconception that the heart momentarily stops during a sneeze (it doesn't), and that saying "bless you" was a way of welcoming the person back to life.

We now know that sneezing is a reflex action and is most often the sign of something relatively benign, such as a cold or allergy. A sneeze also can be provoked by being outside in the sunlight or from smelling a strong odor. Still, we persist in the custom of saying "bless you" or "gesundheit," mainly out of habit and common courtesy.

As to the second part of your question; according to me, it depends on the context. If someone I'm talking to sneezes at that moment, I say it.

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What if you don't say it at that moment? Does the person who are talking with you think that you are so rude? That's my quriosity. – Benjamin Feb 28 '11 at 9:58
@Benjamin: If I don't say it, the opposite side could think it's impolite. Some people I know don't care about it at all. So, to guarantee that I'm not being impolite, I say it. – Mehper C. Palavuzlar Feb 28 '11 at 10:07
Okay. I'll always say it too although I don't like it. – Benjamin Mar 2 '11 at 0:15
@Benjamin This video is NSFW due to language, but it does a good job of lampooning the social mores regarding sneezing here in the U.S.: collegehumor.com/video/3115033/jake-and-amir-bless-you – Taj Moore Jan 7 '12 at 20:40
I don't like the superstitious connotation of "Bless you" for a sneeze, so I use the German "gesundheit" for "good health". If I say "Bless you" it means I really want God to do something for you. – TecBrat Jun 14 '12 at 3:06

Why has been covered extensively in other answers, but I wanted to add something to the "am I rude?" part.

Liking to consider myself a logical person, insinuating that I believe in superstitions, like those described in other answers, seems like the rude action to me, not the other way around.

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Following is an excerpt from http://ask.yahoo.com/20060411.html

Another story veers toward the medical. Once upon an unenlightened time, people believed that the heart stopped during a sneeze. A hearty "God bless you" set the ol' ticker back in motion. Keep in mind these were the days before defibrillators and HMOs.

And This is what WikiAnswers.com says

There are several theories for this.

One says that the phrase "God Bless you" originated from an Islamic practice around more than 1400 years ago. According to Islam religion, when someone sneezed, he should say "All Praises to God" and in reply to him, on sneezing, the people would say "May God Bless You".

Another explanation is that when people sneezed it was thought that the heart would skip a beat and that instance would allow the devil to enter the body, so saying "God bless you" would keep the devil from entering.

It was thought, in the middle ages, that when one sneezed a significant amount of breath (the breath of life) could be expelled from the body and thus cause death. In which case one would go to heaven with God's Blessing.

Written records state that the saying goes back to the time of Pope Saint Gregory I, or Gregory the Great, who was Pope of the Catholic Church from 3 September 590 until he died in 604. When Pope Gregory ascended to the Papacy, it was just in time for the start of the Plague, so this Pope is unfortunately known as the patron saint of plague. He believed that constant repetition of litanies and unceasing prayer for God's help and intercession would help ward off sickness. On 16 February 590 A.D., Pope Gregory decreed that whenever someone sneezed, others should say "God bless you" in response. The blessing was given in the hope that the one who sneezed wouldn't develop the plague.

Perhaps there was more to this than people realized: it is interesting to note that the plague of 590 A.D. dissipated very quickly.

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