The Sneeze

You can learn a lot from the way someone sneezes. When I joined a stockbroking startup in the 1990s, there was a quiet, highly competent nineteen year old called Sarah working in our back office. We soon noticed that if we needed something done, she would do it quickly and correctly, and we’d never have to ask twice. She was modest, almost meek in her demeanour. But she had a huge sneeze, sudden, high pitched and proud, which could be heard from distant offices.

Soon her diligence and ability were recognised, and she was promoted to an extremely well rewarded position as finance director while still very young. I didn’t recognise it at the time, but that mighty sneeze spoke of appetite and ambition, and marked her for greatness.

Our personal sneezing sound is typically set during youth, and everyone has their own signature style. Sneezes come in many varieties: the Splat, the Shout, the Kitten, the Mouse, the Squib, the Cannon… there is surely scope for academic research into how sneezing style might relate to personality. According to Doctor Gordon Siegel, a Chicago otolaryngologist, although sneezing is an involuntary part of the body’s defences, we can exercise a degree of control over the sound that comes out: Siegel cites an acquaintance who has successfully engineered his sneezes to come out as ‘horseshit!’

And there was F. Despite having a perfectly good name like Ian – ok, very like Ian – he preferred to be known by the name of a twentieth century European dictator. He enjoyed leading the team, and tried to play up the blokey side of his character, but was handicapped in this by his preference for eating crisps and chocolate bars over drinking in the pub. F would never sneeze in singles, but in bursts, and when this was happening he would intersperse his sternutation with expletives of increasing strength: Achoo! Bugger. Achoo! Bloody hell. Achoo! Oh fuck. This performance was designed to suggest a brave commander leading his troops onward into battle, despite suffering difficulties under which a lesser man would have buckled.

When Dad sneezed, he would pump his arm vigorously across his chest, as if the rest of his body was offering his nose moral support. A few years ago I took to doing this myself in half-mocking, affectionate tribute, but it’s now become just another habit. Also, I shout, AH-HOO! along with the sneeze, to make sure I’m the centre of attention, and that everyone else in the room knows what I’m going through. This moment belongs to me. And that’s not…excuse me…horseshit!

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