à tes souhaits
À tes souhaits is what French people say after someone sneezes for the first time – it’s the equivalent of “(God) bless you” in English. À tes souhaits literally means “To your wishes” – in other words, “May all your wishes come true.”
For a more formal variant, or if multiple people are sneezing, you can replace the possessive form of the familiar tu with the possessive of the formal/plural “you”: vos. So: À vos souhaits. That said, this is not as common as À tes souhaits, since sneezing is a personal thing that you might not acknowledge with someone you don’t know well or have a formal relationship with (more on this in a minute).
Unlike English, though, this phrase changes if a person sneezes again. The second time a person sneezes, a French person will respond À tes amours — more or less, “May your love life be happy.”. It may be possible in certain contexts to use À vos amours in a situation where you would address the person as vous, but that’s rare, since both one’s love life, and the act of sneezing, are very personal things.
According to some sources, the person who sneezed will then respond to this Et que les tiennes durent toujours/Et que les vôtres durent toujours (May your loves last forever.) But personally, after nearly twenty years of living in France, I’ve never heard anyone say this, either in real life or on TV/in the movies.
No one knows exactly why the French say they hope your wishes come true or that you’ll have a good love life when you sneeze, but most sources claim it may come from ancient beliefs that variations in one’s breathing were a sign of the presence of a divine spirit – so why not wish good things on the sneezer while the spirit is near?
You might be wondering what to say in French if someone sneezes a third time (or a fourth, a fifth…). The answer is…nothing. The French tend to find sneezing embarrassing and a bit vulgar. In fact, the socially acceptable thing to do from the start is to try to hold in your sneeze, while covering your mouth. Sneezing, even if your mouth is covered, is considered rude. (Yes, the French are aware that this is supposed to be harmful for your body; it doesn’t matter to them.) By the third time, it’s almost as if you’ve indulged too much and they just want you to give it up already!
In fact, while it might be considered rude not to respond to a person’s sneeze, in France, reacting to a sneeze is not expected or required by etiquette. Some people may even decide not to acknowledge your (hopefully held-in) sneeze, out of politeness. In a sense, À tes souhaits is a friendly thing to say, not a systematic one.
Of course, everyone sneezes, and you won’t be shunned for doing so, but if you’re in France, try your best to either go somewhere private to sneeze, or hold it in when in company.
- (God) bless you (response to a sneeze)
- literal meaning: “May your wishes come true.”
- À vos souhaits (formal and more rare)
- À tes amours (the response to a second sneeze)