Some sound like mortar fire, others like somebody just stepped on a mouse.
“I have world famous kitten sneezes,” says Susan Frykholm, a 31-year-old multimedia sales specialist from Seattle. “I’m not trying to be cute but people usually start laughing at how ‘precious’ they are.”
“Mine are like a revolutionary war cannon,” says Dan Fine, a 54-year-old IT consultant who is also from Seattle.
We each have our own individual sneezing style. But what, exactly, determines whether those sneezes come out dainty and demure or whether they blow down the whole dang house?
“Sneezes are like laughter,” says Dr. Alan Hirsch, a neurologist, psychiatrist and founder of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. “Some [laughs] are loud, some are soft. And it’s similar with sneezing. It will often be the same from youth onward in terms of what it sounds like.”
Hirsch says he doesn’t know of any studies that have been conducted on various sneezing styles and what they might mean, but says he does believe the way we sneeze reflects some component of the personality.
“It’s more of a psychological thing and represents the underlying personality or character structure,” he says.
A person who’s demonstrative and outgoing, for instance, would most likely have a loud explosive sneeze, whereas someone who’s shy might try to withhold their sneezes, resulting in more of a Minnie Mouse-type expulsion.
Tara Spicer, a 29-year-old copywriter from Mountlake Terrace, Wash., has her own theory about why she sneezes the way she does.
“I'm a sneeze stifler,” she says. “I've always pinched my nose to mute the noise. I think it's a subconscious rebellion against my grandmother, who raised me much of my life, and took pride in her ear-shattering siren-sneeze.”
Others describe their sneezes as screams or trills or “triple threats,” sneezes that come in threes. Just as with other basic body functions (we’re thinking of coughs or hiccups or burps here), everybody’s got their own signature style.
Why do we sneeze in the first place?
“In general, sneezing is an involuntary phenomenon, part of the body’s mechanism of defense, a way of clearing out bacteria or other agents that would be injurious,” says Dr. Gordon Siegel, a Chicago-area otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor). “That being said, you can control to a degree the way it comes out.”
Siegel, an assistant clinical professor at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, points to an acquaintance whose sneezes always incorporate a particularly colorful expression.
“When he sneezes, he likes it to come out saying ‘horsesh*t’ and he’s got it down,” he says. “There is partial control of the final product.”
The shape of our nose or the bone structure of our face might contribute a small degree to certain sneezing styles much in the same way the resonance of our voice is affected by our anatomy, says Siegel. But “what we perceive as the sneezing sound is not really affected significantly by the nose structure.”
For the most part, people don’t really think that much about sneezes, he says. They just happen.
Hirsch, however, has given the practice some thought and adds this final insight.
“When we think about sneezing, it’s almost orgasmic in its quality,” he says. “By giving in to it, you’re experiencing the positive pleasures of a nasal orgasm. So if someone is more sexually repressed, they may withhold it. But if they’re hedonistically-oriented and like pleasure, they may sneeze loudly and strongly.”