"Time can never mend the careless whispers"
May 2, 2009 6:40 AM   Subscribe

"Hi-- ahem, I mean, uh... Hi." Oh no! Do you have bouts with Spontaneous Laryngitis Syndrome, or SLS? Someone passes by you and shoots you a friendly "Hey there!" and you're caught off guard and are left whimpering a little "hey." What to do?

Such brief encounters happen daily at work (esp receiving printouts), and I often find myself reduced to barely getting anything out, or just opening my mouth, nodding, and half-grinning. Even when I consciously try to get my words out more forcefully on a given day, it all goes out the window once someone addresses me out of the blue.

This is an office job, and I don't know if I'm subconsciously trying to avoid speaking too loudly and distracting others who are working at their desks. It may also be an urge to get something out as soon as possible without feeling like an eternity passes before I can respond.

I do well enough in normal extended conversation and can project when needed. I don't sound like Billy Mays, nor Tiny Tim. But in the above scenarios I think I end up sounding like the latter, in my head anyway. So does this happen to anyone else, and how do I get myself to speak at normal volume when suddenly approached, without overcompensating and going all Billy Mays, or enduring a five-second throat wake-up call, or ending up with merely a louder squeaky voice?

Unfortunately, I have no order to double for those responding within the next fifteen minutes.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I have the same problem. I do a hoarse near-silent mouthing of "Hi". I can't think of any solutions. Coughing every time would feel awkward. Maybe if I winked and mimed the act of shooting them with a pistol?
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 7:05 AM on May 2, 2009

I have this problem too. It seems to be related somewhat to shyness, but more specifically, a general aversion to being too loud. I notice this now more than ever because I just started a new job and people aren't used to me yet.

It's just easier at this point to not even try to speak, so usually I just try to compensate by being more obvious in my other gestures, such as smiling or waving. My automatic response now is to mouth "hi" and smile genuinely, and it seems to come across.
posted by smalls at 7:31 AM on May 2, 2009

I have that problem as well! It used to happen to me all the time in class, when I was sitting quiet for a while, then went to speak, and, bam! No voice. Awkward throat clearing while everyone waited, and then it was back.

Very awkward, I don't like it, but for me, it doesn't seem to be a shyness thing. I just always feel like I have the beginnings of a cold, with a tiny bit of buildup in the throat.
posted by firei at 7:41 AM on May 2, 2009

Well, do you get any sort of warning when somebody approaches? If so, perhaps you can do some quick prep work on the ol' cords. This happens to me all the time, and it has nothing to do with shyness. I like to hum a note quickly and quietly (actually, whatever it is I do is very hard to describe) to get my voice back when I haven't spoken in a while and I know I'm about to. About as effective as clearing my throat, but subtler.
posted by thejoshu at 7:46 AM on May 2, 2009

I do not have this problem but smalls's suggestion is what I was thinking: a full grin instead of a half grin, perhaps accompanied by an ostentatious hand gesture like a salute or a thumbs up or a tip of the hat if you wear a hat. I think if you normally react this way without speaking at all people will expect it and accept it as equivalent to a verbal response.
posted by XMLicious at 7:47 AM on May 2, 2009

Huh. I noticed this at work the other day, and was going to Ask about why. I just started a new job not too long ago, and noticed myself doing it when passing someone I didn't know in the hall. Someone even did it to me in return. I was wondering if its a subconciously subordinate thing (I'm new there, don't want to be too boysterous?) or what.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 8:00 AM on May 2, 2009

I have this problem and have solved it by drinking a lot of water. I don't think it's psychological; it seems physiological in some way, and drinking water regularly seems to have cured it.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:06 AM on May 2, 2009

I have the same problem - I usually just smile and wave, but then end up feeling like a creep for not saying anything in return.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 8:11 AM on May 2, 2009

My version of this problem happens on the phone. I always apologize and say it's due to allergy or post-nasal drip. When I analyze what's going on, it feels like my throat is clenching. Maybe drinking water would help unclench it.
posted by lazydog at 8:14 AM on May 2, 2009

What sonic meat machine said. Mine doesn't come out necessarily soft but rather in an embarrassing crack. I wonder if there's just some muscle in there that's weak or something. I'm shy and don't talk a lot but when I do, like at a presentation or something, my voice gets hoarse prematurely.
posted by Melismata at 8:56 AM on May 2, 2009

Waving is a perfectly acceptable response to this sort of thing if you can't speak. I pretty much do the "wave and hey" myself.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:54 AM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Happens to me, too. My theory: your voice is made of muscles that have to freely vibrate to make sound, but they stiffen up or get clogged with phlegm when you don't use them for a while. Then a small puff of air from an inter-office hello isn't enough to push through any stiffness or goo, so you sound like a frog. If you were talking louder, the force of the air would clear it for you, although it might still crack. Clearing your throat periodically or talking every hour or so should help. Drinking water or chewing gum might help too (more saliva?)
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:56 AM on May 2, 2009

Next time this happens, take a minute afterwards to think about how you are standing (or sitting). Are you stooping, or hunching your shoulders? Do your muscles tense up when you are surprised by the unexpected greeting? If you're not sure... pretend that you are carrying two heavy buckets of water. If that makes your shoulders drop, then they were tensed up. Are you breathing rapidly and from your upper chest? Then no wonder you are squeaky.

If you think your posture is contributing to the problem, then the next time it happens, don't immediately say Hi. Instead, take a beat, smile, turn to face them, stand up straight with shoulders back, and only then say "Hi! How are you doing!". Even better, make more of an effort to be the first person to say Hi... in your own time.
posted by emilyw at 12:05 PM on May 2, 2009

I also have this problem and would be interested in any solutions. I often have to clear my throat before I talk, so I tend to have water around a lot. This may or may not have anything to do with the fact that I have partial vocal fold paresis (paralysis) and so naturally sound husky or raspy. I also can't project very well (if I do, my voice gets ragged and I choke up.)

For anybody else having this problem persistently, I'd recomment seeing your ENT.
posted by canine epigram at 6:21 PM on May 2, 2009

I tend to lose my voice when I get sick (upper respiratory, sinus infections), and I talk a lot in my job, so it's a problem. I started visiting the ENT clinic more frequently and found that I have some scarring on my vocal cords. The ENT guessed that I might have a problem with acid reflux, and sure enough, though I never would have noticed it before, I cough and clear my throat much less than I did before.
If your vocal cords are damaged in some way you may find some sort of voice therapy to be helpful. I had a few sessions of resonant voice therapy at the ENT clinic, and combined with the meds, it's really helped a lot.
If it's not that serious, then sonic meat machine's simple advice is right on.
posted by queseyo at 3:35 PM on May 3, 2009

Response by poster: After "practicing" in the comfort of my own home, I'm thinking in my case it may just be a matter of not projecting. Because the other person is usually in close proximity, I may not feel the need to speak from the midsection (advice often used for singing or public speaking), so instead my voice just comes from the throat by default, resulting in little force and volume. So taking one second to reset might work. We'll see.

I drink water constantly at work, so I don't think that's a problem for me at least. And I don't think I tense up or anything when approached suddenly. I'm a fairly subdued kind of guy.

This thread does make me think of "Fritzie" on Dan Patrick's radio show, as he's mocked mercilessly for always having to clear his throat before speaking into his mic, and not using his cough button. But I've heard before that constant throat-clearing could be a sign of some respiratory condition or allergy.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 6:47 PM on May 3, 2009

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