Long ago, I worked in a large lab that was divided into several small rooms. For part of that time, I shared one of the small rooms with a graduate student from Taiwan. She was a wonderful person who taught me that many cultural norms are not normal in other cultures.
One moment stands out.
"Gesundheit" I replied.
She stared at me, clearly puzzled. "What?"
"You know, it's a word we say when people sneeze. It keeps demons from running up your nose"
If she looked puzzled before, now, she was clearly alarmed. I could see her sneaking furtive glances towards the door. Was she was considering the odds of getting around me and escaping?
I was stunned, too. Did I really just say that? Where did that stuff about the demons come from?
A little surprised myself, I explained, no, I didn't really believe that bit about demons, it was something that I'd heard somewhere, and that saying "Gesundheit" was a habit I learned growing up. Oh, and by the way, the proper response was "Thank you."
We both laughed and she thanked me for keeping the demons out of her nose.
These days, I work in a cubical, not a lab. More people are closer by and they sneeze more often, especially this time of year, when several people have been sick.
But I never know what to do anymore. My cubical neighbors don't say anything when other people sneeze. Nor do they seem to worry about it.
But I do. Sometimes I say "Gesundheit," sometimes I don't and, even though they always say "thank you," and I'm definitely not concerned about the demon business anymore, I always wonder if I'm doing something wrong or right.
What do you do when you hear "Achoo"?