DEAR MISS MANNERS: Of course, the proper reply to the all too common sneeze is a cultural issue. But many people are insulted if one does not provide the common English expression of "Bless you" or "God bless you" addressed to one who sneezes.
Yet there is no basis or known origin for this often-expected reply.
My argument is that one who sneezes should be asking others to "please excuse me" for propelling one's germs and other body fluids into our shared space. However, almost never do I experience an "excuse me."
The situation is made worse by being in the presence of someone with a cold or other condition that causes for repeated sneezing. Am I really to be expected to issue a blessing each and every time someone sneezes?
I am satisfied that someone would ask only once to be excused for having to sneeze for whatever cause, as I understand that they have a problem and that sneezes are often uncontrollable. Of course, taking measures to limit the exposure of the sneeze to others should be expected even more so than either a "blessing" or a "polite pardon" for one's uncontrollable discharge.
Seems to me that the only appropriate and expected response to a sneeze in public is for the sneezer to first and foremost cover up and, if appropriate, excuse oneself. Appropriate means not to interrupt others further by insisting to apologize and certainly not expecting that others would be asked to stop and provide a blessing each and every time a person sneezes.
What is the "socially acceptable to everyone etiquette" for dealing with a public sneezer?
GENTLE READER: Actually, there are many explanations of the origin of this ancient custom -- as superstitions about health or actual religious blessings -- which, Miss Manners supposes, validates your statement that its origin is unknown.
But such is the way with custom. There is no logical reason why sneezes are blessed and coughs are not, and that yawns call forth apologetic explanations but even less decorous physical reflexes are, by common understanding, ignored. Any such pronouncements generally turn out to be bogus or contested.
So people are still blessed at the first sneeze, and asked "Are you all right?" after a series.
But people get accustomed and even emotionally attached to this patchwork of odd little customs. This makes them difficult to change, and the prospect of changing them all to conform to a logical pattern is daunting.
Furthermore, opening the possibility of change brings out the worst in some people. Miss Manners would not like it to become common for sneezes to be met with cries of "Arghh! Get away from me!"
DEAR MISS MANNERS: When I went to use the rest room at a party given by close relatives, I found that it was clean, had toilet paper and soap, but that there was only one hand towel for all of us to dry our hands on. I was pretty concerned about this. The hosts have good incomes and are well educated.
GENTLE READER: But how were their guests educated? It has always puzzled Miss Manners that the only rule still vigorously obeyed even by rude people is a false one: It was apparently drummed into them that nobody is supposed to use the guest towels, not even guests.
Perhaps your hosts got fed up with the lack of use and provided for only the occasional person who actually washed his hands and didn't dry them with toilet paper or on a family bath towel.
But they should not have given up. As a close relative, you can emerge with wet hands and ask for a towel.