Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Sneezing - a window on the soul

I was in a meeting the other day at work, and sitting across from me was this elegant woman, replete in an impressive - nay, intimidating - business suit, tasteful jewelry, impeccable makeup. Had I passed her on the street, I would've bowed my head and not met her eye in that unconscious gesture of deference we all exhibit for someone seemingly above our station. (Though, to be honest, my wife can achieve this corporate warrior aura via clothes and makeup, too. But even when she does it, I tend to speak in more formal tones to her.) I was glad I didn't really have to actually say anything to her in this meeting. But then she sneezed. A really violent, healthy one that rocked her head back and forth, made her jewelry rattle, and make her chair squeak.

Even though it was a very poised sneeze, as much as can be mustered, it still was a whole body wobble with that humorous range of expression while in the grip of an involuntary body maintenance spasm. I think that's why we pardon someone when they sneeze. It's not so much for us, but for the dignity of the victim.

Nearly all other unwelcome and inconvenient events visited upon us by our person are either considered controllable and therefore rude, such as gas, itches in private places, etc., or they are rare and exceptional and therefore, though humiliating, forgiven, such as vomiting.

So sneezes, and perhaps hiccups (though those might be in the category of "take it elsewhere"), are our sole tolerated public display of involuntary reflex. And they are so personal and distinct. You could pick your spouse or child out of a crowd by hearing them sneeze - or even from seeing them partially through a crowd from behind, their body language during a sneeze being unique to them as well. Number of sneezes are telling, too. I almost always sneeze just once. A buddy of mine sneezes three times without fail. My daughter sneezes just twice.

Maybe if we thought about it more, we wouldn't think we really knew someone very well until, amongst other indicators of personality, saw them sneeze a couple times.

And it certainly goes a long way towards humanizing someone intimidating when we witness them spasm, scrunch up their face, bark out a raft of air, and then regain composure. After the ritual of "bless you!" and "thanks!", don't we all feel just a bit more at ease, after that sneeze?

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