It's not seasonal allergies
September 20, 2008 6:48 AM   Subscribe

On city sidewalks, when strangers pass each other, why do they sniffle? Walking toward each other, we size each other up at a distance of 25 ft, then avert eyes, then 10 ft, then avert eyes and as we pass *sniffle* or quick intake of air through the nose that makes a sound. What does this mean? It seems wholly subconscious. Are we tracking a scent? Are they sticking their nose in the air in an aristocratic air of disapproval? I've noticed this phenomenon, so I consciously avert my sniffling because I don't even know why it happens, or what it means. But now I hear it from passers-by all the time. It's definitely not allergies; it seems very focused.
posted by Jason and Laszlo to Society & Culture (31 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Serves a similar purpose as the arm/elbow/ear scratch when people experience social discomfort - distraction. While the scratch is an attempt to distract the *other person* from focusing entirely on what we're saying, the sniff is an attempt to distract *ourselves* from our own social discomfort.
posted by dreamphone at 6:56 AM on September 20, 2008

In cities where people don't have a habit of staring each otrher as they pass (this is not the case everywhere), it seems to psychologically defray the awkwardness by saying "I couldn't possibly be looking at you, I'm too busy sniffling/snorting/coughing."

In other words, what dreamphone said.
posted by softsantear at 7:34 AM on September 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Sometimes I find myself doing that or making a little "Hm" sound in the back of my throat as I walk by someone who seems to be looking at me for whatever reason. I also find myself doing it when I walk by someone I feel a strong social compulsion not to offend. It's like an almost-greeting; like, hey, I see you there. Sometimes I include a slight head nod or chin thrust with it. It's a function of self-consciousness, I think, but I don't think it's to distract myself; it's more to sort of subconsciously make sure I'm "covered" in the greeting department with people who seem to be (or could just possibly be) paying attention to me in the first place.
posted by limeonaire at 7:53 AM on September 20, 2008

I just like smelling new people.
posted by wfrgms at 7:59 AM on September 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm going to pull out and dust off an old Metafilter favorite: confirmation bias.
posted by nitsuj at 8:03 AM on September 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm very aware of this too. In my experience, sniffing--absent an apparent allergy or cold-- is not subconscious it's deliberate, and it's most certainly an act of some kind of hostility on the sniffer's part. Coughing or other noises and gestures may be subconscious or "automatic" behaviors but I don't think the sniffing is, especially when it's one race/ethnicity/gender/age category doing it in the presence of another race/ethnicity/gender/age category. I am extremely careful about not doing this, but sometimes for my own amusement I'll sniff back just to let the person know that I know what they're doing and I'm not impressed.
posted by fuse theorem at 8:19 AM on September 20, 2008

People here pretty much ignore each other and I have never seen this. If people stare at me, I stare right back for a few seconds and then ignore them again.

The sniffle seems like it's sort of a pissed-off gesture, though--maybe you should try to ignore people more.
posted by sondrialiac at 8:25 AM on September 20, 2008

This must be a big city phenomenon, as I've never experienced this my entire life. With the exception of D.C. for a year, I've never lived in a big city. Generally, I either make a polite nod of the head or just ignore the person walking past me.
posted by Atreides at 8:39 AM on September 20, 2008

I agree with the first two posts. My personal experiences with something familiar is, instead of sniffling, checking one's cellphone or adjusting a purse/bag strap/piece of clothing.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 8:58 AM on September 20, 2008

I live in Toronto and so far I haven't noticed this. You'd have to do an awful lot of sniffling every day if you sniffed every time you passed somebody on the sidewalk.
posted by pravit at 9:08 AM on September 20, 2008

i do this as a way to make sure the other person knows i'm there, so i don't inadvertently startle them. it's like ringing your bell if you're riding a bike up behind someone.
posted by apostrophe at 9:08 AM on September 20, 2008

I hold my breath when I pass someone I expect to be particularly odiferous, be it overpowering perfume or horrible body odor.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:25 AM on September 20, 2008

Never noticed this phenomenon either. People just smile in my experience, or fiddle with their purse/phone/backpacks if they're shy or unfriendly.

Where do you live? Perhaps it's a regional thing.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 9:58 AM on September 20, 2008

If its someone attractive, I also sniff their wake so I can remember their scent when I'm recalling (fantasizing) their image later.
posted by bleucube at 10:06 AM on September 20, 2008

Yes, very curious to know where you live as I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. Fascinating.
posted by meerkatty at 10:35 AM on September 20, 2008

these answers are hilarious, and SO interesting! fuse theorem suggests it's deliberately hostile, and I agree, although that idea scares me. Why be hostile to strangers? Often the sniffle follows a few seconds of sizing each other up. It seems so ANIMAL. Maybe I will try to say hello, or just sniffle back.

I live in Chicago, but I've also experienced this elsewhere. I'm totally addicted to people watching, which may be taken by some as threatening.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 12:48 PM on September 20, 2008

Are we tracking a scent?

No. The human olfactory system is much too weak for that.

What Im guessing happened is that you noticed someone sniffing and since then our old friend confirmation bias has been in the driver's seat.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:50 PM on September 20, 2008

nitsuj: i was afraid this might be the answer (confirmation bias). So, this is really my problem, not theirs?
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 12:52 PM on September 20, 2008

I'm going to pull out and dust off an old Metafilter favorite: confirmation bias.

As someone who deliberately does this (sometimes), at least in cities where strangers like their personal space (e.g. NYC), I can tell you that it is purposeful, for the reasons I explained above.

I'm also confident that many people do this, and that it is learned. However, contrary to what fuse theorem is saying, I don't think there is - or at least never perceived there being - a hierarchy of noises. Really, I've never thought of sniffing as condescending or hostile.

To me, coughing when passing is too deliberate ("ahem!"), but a slight sniff (not a snort) is, if you're trying to dissemble, a better way of feigning uninterest, what with the likelihood of dust and particulate matter swirling around in a city... I dunno, I always thought the sniff was more natural and, therefore, innocuous.

In any case, it's like a little sonic buffer, you dig? This isn't always necessary, but sometimes people are looking up, then averting their eyes, then looking up, then averting their eyes, possibly licking their lips while looking, doing all of this unsettling shit, and you're doing unsettling shit too, and you are both bombarding each other with mind waves so you just have to reset things, so to speak. A simple sniff seems to clear the minds of both parties and prevent any awkwardness from escalating.

Otherwise, at the crucial moment - when passing under a construction scaffolding and being pressed shoulder to shoulder with the person, for instance - you both might just flip and wrestle each other to the ground, stare into each other's eyes and say, panting, "I was...not...looking at you...I SWEAR."

The sniff exists to avoid this accidental escalation. Anyway, this does seem to be a regional phenomenon. Personally, I don't like that I even have to do it. I much prefer the way we did it in Spain when I was growing up, where people are content to eyefuck each other as they pass, doing an Exorcist-style neck bend to take in every last detail. To do otherwise would just be plain rude.
posted by softsantear at 12:53 PM on September 20, 2008 [4 favorites]

Another thing to think about is that is that dealing with strangers brings out the most paranoid and neurotic parts of us. Like: Was he looking at me? Did she snub me? Do I know that person? Is this person being rude? etc. This is a breeding ground for craziness and confirmation bias.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:03 PM on September 20, 2008

Add me the "What? Fascinating!" club.

I've lived in a lot of different kinds of places and am also an ardent people watcher, and I have never seen/heard such a thing.

Do people do a lot of coke in your neighborhood?

Chicago could be damp enough that people could be sniffing up a drooping boogey before they get within eyeshot.

I've seen something possibly related in vagrant/bum behavior. When they're somewhere they don't belong there is a lot of harrumphing, teeth sucking, pants adjusting, finger in ear twiddling, etc as sort of a ward against people asking them to leave. "I'm busy with my pants and whatevers gone wrong with my teeth, good sir! I'll be with you in a moment." It makes them more visible rather than less, but I do see itused this way rather often.

Outside of confirmation bias, I'd guess it's a similar "embarrassed" gesture, like women who touch their hair. I touch my nose when I'm embarrassed, but I don't do it on the street or I'd have it worn down to a nub. And is walking by another human embarrassing to anyone? Really? I'd think anyone in a reasonably dense place like Chicago a person would hyperventilate if they sniffed at everyone who they met.

Now I've got something else to look for.
posted by Ookseer at 1:09 PM on September 20, 2008

I had never noticed this until I returned from a couple months of living in small French villages where *everyone* smiles and says "Bonjour." I came home to my not-particularly-large town and was amazed at the eye aversion, hair-touching, sniffing, light coughing, phone/iPod fiddling that goes on when walking down the street. It strikes me as a sort of acquired behavior for people who have forgotten (or never learned) how to deal with other human beings in passing. I like the idea of the sonic buffer.

For the next couple months, I had a blast watching the reactions of strangers when I smiled and said hello when passing them. For many people, that's an egregious offense in this town.
posted by Heretic at 2:05 PM on September 20, 2008

On my city streets we frequently smile at each other and sometimes even say hello.

I did that when I first moved to town, and ended up getting either followed by crazy people daily or ridiculous offers for sex for pay. Add me to the sniffing crowd.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 3:00 PM on September 20, 2008

If I have ever sniffed at someone while passing them, it's probably because I had a runny nose and didn't want you to think I couldn't control my own mucous. My apologies for the crossed wires, strangers who may have taken offense!
posted by chrominance at 4:16 PM on September 20, 2008

It's a social distraction thing; it's "doing your own thing" as opposed to passing by in an awkward thing. It's at once a "Hey, you're under no obligation to interact with me; I'm doing something" and a dis-invitation to interact, because, hey, I'm doing something. In a somewhat similar way, I've avoided unwanted small talk by pretending to be on the phone.

On my city streets we frequently smile at each other and sometimes even say hello

That's a Dixie thing. Something I've never liked very much when visiting the south.
posted by spaltavian at 4:18 PM on September 20, 2008

I don't think that I sniff, but as someone who takes daily walks I'm very aware of the tension that can manifest as you approach and make eye contact with someone some distance away. I tend to either nod, sometimes with a murmured "howdy" (curse my Texan formative years), or just stare into the middle distance and make like my iPod is really, really absorbing.

My girlfriend, on the other hand, says that she instinctively adds a kind of side-to-side lope to her walk if she's alone and passing someone. She imagines it's intended to express a sort of casual, non-confrontationalness, and while she's aware that she is doing it, she can't help it.
posted by mumkin at 5:36 PM on September 20, 2008

I'm not picturing this side-to-side lope thing.
posted by softsantear at 8:09 PM on September 20, 2008

I'm not picturing this side-to-side lope thing.

It's just exaggerated walking, perhaps slightly comic... Not more intense walking, mind, but bigger, heavier steps, with an emphasized shifting of her center of balance, accompanied by a head-bob. Elastic. Think one of the Seven Dwarves, hi-hoing his way off to work.
posted by mumkin at 10:05 PM on September 20, 2008

As someone who deliberately does this (sometimes), at least in cities where strangers like their personal space (e.g. NYC), I can tell you that it is purposeful, for the reasons I explained above.

I think the "confirmation bias" part is regarding how the original question made it sound like everyone does this, but really it's just something they're watching out for so they notice it when some people do it.
posted by smackfu at 8:07 AM on September 21, 2008

I do this as a signal of saying "Sigh, so busy, on my way to do all sorts of things, DO NOT BOTHER ME, I'm acknowledging you as a person but am currently preoccupied with my own little world. If you try to harass me, I will pretend that I am too focused to notice you." Seeming to be preoccupied/slightly deaf, and/or concentrating on getting somewhere where people are waiting for you will dramatically cut down on harassment/threatening attempts made towards you. You do have to be super-alert anyway.
posted by oldtimey at 8:36 AM on September 21, 2008

I have lived in big cities and small, on three continents and both in the U.S. south and north, and I've never noticed this. But then I look at the ground all the time (old habit), so perhaps I just don't notice. Fascinating! I'll be paying attention walking down the street in D.C. tomorrow, for sure.
posted by gemmy at 9:10 PM on September 21, 2008

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