Why deaf people sneeze silently
- 5 July 2013
An online magazine for the deaf community, Limping Chicken, recently ran an item on how deaf and hearing people sneeze differently.
The article by partially deaf journalist Charlie Swinbourne got readers talking - and the cogs started turning at Ouch too.
Swinbourne observes that deaf people don't make the "achoo!" sound when they sneeze, while hearing people seem to do it all the time - in fact, he put it in his humorous list, The Top 10 Annoying Habits of Hearing People.
Nor is "achoo" universal - it's what English-speaking sneezers say. The French sneeze "atchoum". In Japan, it's "hakashun" and in the Philippines, they say "ha-ching".
Inserting words into sneezes - and our responses such as "bless you" - are cultural habits we pick up along the way. So it's not surprising that British deaf people, particularly users of sign language, don't think to add the English word "achoo" to this most natural of actions.
For deaf people, "a sneeze is what it should be... something that just happens", says Swinbourne in his article.
He even attempts to describe what an achoo-free deaf sneeze sounds like: "[There is] a heavy breath as the deep pre-sneeze breath is taken, then a sharper, faster sound of air being released."
Very little deaf-sneeze research exists, but a study has been done on deaf people and their laughter.
So do deaf laughs sound different to hearing ones? In a paper called Laughter Among Deaf Signers, the deaf guffaw or titter is described as "obvious and easily identified" but "more varied than the typical laughter of hearing people".
Speaking to Ouch, Prof Bencie Woll, director of the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre at University College London, calls actions like these "vegetative sounds". She says we can modify the noise, but we can't stop it.
"When we laugh, we are not trying to go 'ha ha'. That's just the sound that comes out as a result of the changes we make in our throat. The influence we have over our sneezing and laughter allows us to stifle them or put more power behind them, depending on what feels socially appropriate."