Why do we vocalize sneezes?
November 9, 2007 12:32 PM   Subscribe

Why do we vocalize sneezes?

It seems that most people "voice" their sneezes, some in a much more pronounced way than others. Is this learned behavior (presumably not consciously so) or is there some physiological reason for it? Most animals don't seem to do it. Most animals also seem to sneeze with their mouths closed, which would seem like a sensible way to direct the force where it's going to do some good.
posted by George_Spiggott to Science & Nature (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
For what it's worth (admittedly not much), I have a father who makes a loud "HARUSHOO!" with his sneezes. I did not think much of it until I found out that one of my younger brothers had turned into a HARUSHOOer. There is definitely a degree of 'learned behaviour' going on.
posted by kmennie at 12:37 PM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't know why, but I have noticed that the most vocalized sneezes tend to come from men (i.e my dad), whereas many women seem to have dainty little unvocalized sneezes (carpool mom). In my mind, this supports the 'learned behavior' idea, since it correlates with what I know about learned speech patterns. Which admittedly isn't much.
posted by bassjump at 12:42 PM on November 9, 2007

How to sneeze.
Trying to suppress a powerful sneeze can cause your inner ears to pop or can spray bacteria into your sinuses and ears.
My mom always told me if I closed my mouth when I sneezed my head would explode, so I've always sneezed loudly and proudly with a big HAAAASCHUUU! into a tissue or my elbow crook.
posted by Floydd at 12:43 PM on November 9, 2007

Oh, and a thought about why: I find vocalizing sneezes makes them far more satisfying. I tend to sneeze a gajillion times in a row, and my last one is usually a grand finale. Holding back sneezes, or trying to keep them quiet, just leads to an itchy nose and no good. (As Floydd says.)
posted by bassjump at 12:44 PM on November 9, 2007

The demons I expel come from a long line of (evil) opera singers.
posted by empyrean at 12:50 PM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

It's different in different languages. Many of my Spanish friends do Aaaaa-Cheee!, but I don't think the learned element is as important as the anatomical similarlity in your father and brother's nasal septum. So part of the vocalisation is definitely learned but the volume relates to the air being forced through the vocal chords. The vocal chords are tensed to make the opening really small as a result of whatever triggers the sneeze, upper airways housekeeping, so I'm going to guess a bit of both learned and anatomical variation.
posted by Wilder at 12:56 PM on November 9, 2007

I think the different sounds people make are based on how much they are trying to control their sneeze. I get made fun of for making tiny high-pitched mouse sneezes, but I only do this when I am in public or at work and trying not to blow snot, spit, and germs everywhere.
posted by tastybrains at 1:22 PM on November 9, 2007

I disagree with the premise. Some people voice them, and frankly it is kind of rude to be that loud, but most people just let it happen without engaging their vocal chords.
posted by caddis at 1:24 PM on November 9, 2007

Speculation: A sneeze is often a response to irritants. By vocalizing the sneeze more vibration is set-up in the larynx and pharynx helping to shake lose more mucus and more irritants.
posted by 517 at 1:51 PM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

My father used to make a lot of noise when he sneezed, and as a kid it drove me CRAZY. I hated it. I thought it was an awful noise. I would do anything not to make that noise.

But as I got into my late twenties, I started making that same noise, and it's only gotten worse. Bodies change as they age, and it's entirely possible that this is just one of those changes. In fact, now that I'm thinking about it (who thinks about this stuff without AskMe?) this change coincided roughly with a change at the back of my throat that makes it occasionally hard to swallow and requires I hack food back up every once in a while (how pleasant to read about, eh?) I had it looked at and they found nothing, but perhaps the sneezing thing is related.

If it's body-related, that would explain why fathers tend to pass it down to their sons in some cases, too.
posted by davejay at 1:57 PM on November 9, 2007

Best answer: What a great question, George_Spiggott.

I don't know why we vocalize sneezes, in terms of an efficient cause (or whether we do, as caddis doubts, though in my experience we do indeed), but I'll offer you a reason we should (a final cause, if you will).

Sneezing seems to me to be most likely when we inhale a suspension of irritating particles, such as pepper or mold spores or pollen, and the purpose of it seems to be expelling the particles before they can get down into the lungs, preventing the particles from depositing themselves on the mucous membranes of our air passages, and scouring away some of the particles which have already been deposited.

I think vocalizing enhances the last two functions. It does so by inducing turbulence in the outgoing air stream at the pinch point of the contracted vocal cords. Most of the time, breathing in and out involves laminar air flow, but one of the characteristics of laminar flow is that velocity of the air drops smoothly to zero near the walls of the passage no matter how great the average velocity of the air is. If the flow of air in a sneeze remained laminar, any particle near the wall would continue to settle out, and there would be no scouring effect at all.

Turbulent flow, on the other hand, can and typically does have high velocities right next to the walls, and all those sneezed-out tiny droplets of moisture ordinarily absent from exhaled air testify to its scouring power.

I think the vibration of the walls of the air passages induced by the sound also enhance the scouring effect, but to a lesser degree. (on preview, what 517 said.)
posted by jamjam at 2:12 PM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

My partner is a loud 'ACHOO'er - this frightens the life out of me - but as Floydd's mother agrees - he also contends that if he doesn't, then his head will explode...
I can say that I rarely vocalise my sneezes (only when its an unexpected sneeze and my mouth is already open) and as yet, my head has not exploded.

I think, as the language differences suggest that there is a certain level of 'intent' in some vocalised sneezes but that some noise is inevitable if your mouth is open.

I find that whether or not you try to stiffle it, opening your mouth is almost a reflex action to the feeling of the tingle of an imminent sneeze.
posted by missmagenta at 2:41 PM on November 9, 2007

I think vocalizing is at least a bit learned. I'm a loud ahchoo'er, and my wife used to make these little dainty, cartoon-stereotype ka-choo. Increasingly she's found herself sneezing loudly with an ahchoo.

As for volume and rudeness, it's a semi-involuntary action. I can hold a sneeze in at great pain; I can sneeze quietly for light pain, an unsatisfactory sneeze, and an increased liklihood of needing to sneeze again; or I can sneeze as my body instinctively does and get great relief. Similarly, I could cough instinctively and get relief, or work my darndest at gagging instead of coughing so as to not disturb others. I consider that my coughs and sneezes (both always covered with tissue, elbow or hand) to be my tradeoff for not being an annoying cellphone user. We're meat puppets, sometimes we have to accept that.

The most embarassing thing sneeze related to happen was in highschool during quiet study hall in the mostly empty cafeteria (think "echo"), I had a sneeze that died right after the "ah" with no choo.
posted by nobeagle at 3:10 PM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

sneeze with their mouths closed, which would seem like a sensible way to direct the force where it's going to do some good

Eh? During a cold, with both nostrils clogged? Sounds like a good way to burst your sinuses, or worse.

Love the periodic AskMe posts on sneezing, BTW. Not sure I'd know how to un-vocalize my sneezes -- rather than something learned, I thought this involuntary reaction was entirely instinctive.

On the other hand I frequently observe people who seem to forcibly stiffle their sneezes (which sounds not only painful but dangerous) and I always figure they were raised to think of a sneeze not as a healthy reflex, but a rudeness.
posted by Rash at 3:33 PM on November 9, 2007

I think some people here are missing the point. He was asking why some people "vocalize" their sneezes, which is different than just letting out a big ol' loud sneeze. I know what he's talking about here, there are some people out there who like to announce to anyone within a 50 foot radius that they are sneezing with an incredibly loud "ACHOO" on top of their already loud sneeze. I think it can be chalked up to some people being attention whores. Maybe they didn't get enough attention as a child...
posted by MaryDellamorte at 3:35 PM on November 9, 2007

Yeah, upon reflection, I know what you mean, MaryD, and I agree completely. Some sneezers embelish the act.
posted by Rash at 3:37 PM on November 9, 2007

Yes Rash, they surely do. I also think this can be compared to people blaring their music well above a reasonable listening volume in their cars. It's the whole "look at me" mentality that too many people are inflicted with. Sorry, but I'm not impressed by your ability to turn the volume knob all the way to the right. Sneeze vocalizers and loud music listeners are probably the type of people to let their cell phones loudly ring a bunch of times in a public place before finally picking up the phone.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 4:02 PM on November 9, 2007

Personally I'd rather hear ACHOO!!!! than the little dainty 'tchu' that some women have learned by trying to stifle their sneezes. It sounds so unnatural when they do that.
posted by happyturtle at 4:05 PM on November 9, 2007

Response by poster: As to whether it's learned behavior, it would be interesting to know if babies give voice to their earliest sneezes, or if at that point they just blow out air without using their vocal cords like the rest of the critter kingdom.
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:11 PM on November 9, 2007

It's more satisfying to let blast with a vocalizing "ACHOO", and not in an 'attention-whoring' way, you damn introverts.

I think jamjam's explanation makes sense, because if I don't vocalize my sneezes, my nose will itch and itch until I finally do let a monster room-clearing "ACHOO" go. Or, maybe Mary is right, and the way I sneeze just says something about my negligent parents. Or maybe not, because that's a pretty ignorant comment.
posted by jstef at 4:18 PM on November 9, 2007

I think someone needs to invent an HTML tag that lets others know which words and statements contain sarcasm.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 4:27 PM on November 9, 2007

There really is such a wide variation in sneezes, isn't there? I knew a little tiny thing whose sneeze was "kee! kee!" Cute, but it seemed so ineffective. I also knew a girl in my call center who sneezed so loud that callers on my phone would bless me, and I was far across the room from the sneezer.

Another interesting thing about sneezes is that in those who sneeze due to "sunlight getting in their nose," and those who sneeze a proscribed number of times each and every time they sneeze (I know a six-sneezer), it appears to be genetic.
posted by thebrokedown at 4:37 PM on November 9, 2007

Sneezing is one of the most pleasant things to do on the planet. I'd probably place it second after sex and just before taking a crap. I vocalise my sneezes loudly as a celebration of life itself. And this joy makes my current cold that much more bearable.

posted by brautigan at 4:38 PM on November 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

I refuse to date women who go chu! when they sneeze. It should be something like CHOO! Get it done! Things need to come out! You are human!

I don't really "vocalize" it as in say "AH CHOO", but I sneeze forcefully and satisfyingly. I used to think I had to say "AHHH" beforehand until I found out I could breathe in just fine without that. My "CHOO" is more like a chuff, too.

Just sneeze.
posted by blacklite at 7:43 PM on November 9, 2007

Best thread today.

The only thing I can add is that we have an office three-sneezer. Every day. Several times a day. Three sneezes. Except sometimes... sometimes just two sneezes and it drives me crazy. I keep waiting for that third sneeze and sometimes it makes my nose start to twitch and I tell my brain that that is completely unreasonable. A sneeze is not a yawn, brain. No sneezing.
posted by amanda at 8:10 PM on November 9, 2007

I hate it when people make unnecessarily loud vocalizations when they sneeze. My grandfather yells "AAAAAAHHHchoo!" and it drives me nuts. It's learned behavior and I think many people just like to hear themselves make noise and draw attention to themselves. Why? I have no idea. People are obnoxious. I only vocalize when the sneeze catches me off guard; otherwise, I consciously don't vocalize the act because it's disruptive to others and it's gross. People in the next room don't need to know that I'm spraying my germs all over.
posted by HotPatatta at 11:28 PM on November 9, 2007

My sister & I started to purposefully say words or random nonsense syllables while sneezing at some point when we were young and realized "achoo" was kind of arbitrary. It started with words at least a little similar - satchel, taboo, cache, canoe, camus - but we became more and more adventurous as it went on. Some words do hurt your sinuses or ears, though.

Every now and then one of us will still do this, but I will say that there is something about the "learned" sound of "achoo" that fits very well with the physical act of the sneeze, that other sounds don't really reproduce properly, so to get the full joy of a sneeze and not just make a silly little joke, it's kinda better to go with the classics.
posted by mdn at 1:00 PM on November 10, 2007

eschew, of course, is a pretty good one... forgot about that.

It's something about drawing the air in and then allowing it full but somewhat directed force forward, so you can just breath in but when letting it out it helps to let it go through a 'sch' barrier of some kind, somehow.

As for vocalizing at all, it's worth remembering that not all words are vocalized (whispering is non-vocalized, as are a lot of individual sounds within vocalized words, like the "th" in "thumb" etc) so a lot of loud sneezes aren't fully vocalized since "sh" or "ch" is usually unvocalized but still a recognizable sound.
posted by mdn at 1:05 PM on November 10, 2007

People in the next room don't need to know that I'm spraying my germs all over.

Now, we’ve been through this before. Some of us sneeze all the time, not just when we’re sick. It's probably triggered by dust or something.

I think many people just like to hear themselves make noise and draw attention to themselves. Why? I have no idea.

Well according to jstef it's done
not in an 'attention-whoring' way, you damn introverts

...so there's the reason why: it's the damn extroverts. Or perhaps, just the child within?
"Watch me Daddy! Watch me!"
posted by Rash at 1:48 PM on November 10, 2007

A related phenomenon, maybe: people who vocalize blowing their nose. I just exhale and it makes whatever noise that particular combination of air and snot happens to make. My husband feels the need to add a loud honking sound which I think is totally superfluous. Especially when he's in the shower.
posted by bink at 2:20 PM on November 10, 2007

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