Once, I was at a train stop, waiting for my train to pull up. I was sitting at one of those benches that has the arm rest for two seats, and then two seats without an arm divider. A trio came and sat down next to me. I was journaling, they were talking, and we all did a great job of peacefully ignoring each other.

Then the guy next to me started sneezing. In the middle of his conversation, and I mean sneezing. My knee-jerk reaction was to say, “bless you”, but I held myself back. What followed was a very uncomfortable inner debate.

I didn’t know this guy, and he was with people who did know him. I didn’t know their situation. He was violently sneezing, and they were continuing the conversation without acknowledging him. Was this something that was common? Was this what they did? Maybe he didn’t want anyone to say “bless you.” Maybe he subconsciously did, but wouldn’t realize it until I said it to him. Would that make him reevaluate his relationship with his friends? What if my saying “bless you” made them seem exceptionally rude, or make me seem obnoxious?

The other thing about me saying “bless you” is that it would require my breaking our unspoken agreement to ignore each other. Saying “bless you” would mean acknowledging that I could hear him, and acknowledging that I could hear him meant acknowledging that I could hear All Of Them, which would mean that I could also hear their conversation. Not like I was actually listening to their conversation. I was busy writing. They, however, would have no way of knowing this. What if my saying “bless you” would make them all so uncomfortable that they didn’t feel that they could continue to talk in front of me, and what if that would make them all resent me? I didn’t want to sit for another twenty minutes with three people who resented me.

But that thought process was so stupid and selfish! I had manners. I was not an impolite person. What if all of them were testing me, waiting to see if I was some rude person (rude person of color? No, don’t go there) ? I didn’t want to fail a test or reaffirm negative beliefs about strangers. All of this was unlikely, but the pressure not to be rude was building up inside me, matching pace with the pressure not to make them uncomfortable by talking to them.

“Bless you,” I finally said, almost under my breath, about a minute after the sneezing had already stopped. There, I thought, if he really was testing me, he’ll have heard that. It’s all good.

If you say “bless you” and the person doesn’t hear it, does the politeness count?

If you say “I love you,” and the person doesn’t know it, have you improved their self esteem?

If you think positive thoughts and send warm fuzzes to a person far away, without them being aware, will they be any happier?


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