Age: As old as humanity.
Role: An important and versatile communication tool.
Oh dear, do you think you’re a mole again? Shall I call the nurse? I mean it. You can tell an awful lot about a person by the way they sniff.
Such as if they have a cold? Well, sure, yes. But the sniff spectrum is a wonderful and varied thing, hardwired into our unconscious behaviour. Science has proved it.
Has it? Yes. Elliott Hoey from the University of Basel has published a study in the journal Research on Language and Social Interaction. He examined 70 different sniffs, and detected a wide range of meaning in all of them.
Prove it. OK. Hoey discovered that humans use different kinds of sniffs in normal conversation. There is the post-completion sniff, used to indicate that someone has said their piece and is freeing up others to talk. There is the delicacy sniff: a way of transitioning to more difficult territory, such as criticism or bad news. Then there is the delay sniff, used as an audible holding space while the speaker is thinking.
Sniff. Sorry, I’ll wait.
No, sorry, I wasn’t thinking. I’ve got terrible hay fever. Right, sometimes it means you’re poorly. But don’t discount the sniff as a conversational tool either.
Are there other examples of this? According to Hoey, sniffing is a discreet way to broadcast your presence, while acknowledging others and advertising a lack of willingness to engage. For example, have you ever heard people sniffing in toilet cubicles as you enter a public bathroom?
I have. That’s because the person is making a politely diplomatic noise to indicate that their cubicle is occupied.
Really? I always thought it was because of cocaine. Yes, fine, it might also be because they’re doing drugs. But more likely it’s just a tiny warning that they are also present.
This is fascinating. It is, isn’t it? Who knew that something as simple as a sniff could convey such a wealth of meaning?
Can this be abused somehow? Of course. You know what would be fun? Next time you talk to someone, do a sniff before getting to the point. They will mistake it as a delicacy sniff and assume bad news is coming. You will have the upper hand.
I’m going to spend the rest of the day painfully aware of other people’s sniffs now. Yes, me too. But that just goes to show what a valuable yet unconscious role the sniff has in determining the mood and intention of a speaker.
You could say it’s nothing to be sniffed at. That is a terrible joke, and I am extremely disappointed in you.
Do say: “Sniff sniff sniff sniff.”
Don’t say: “Sniff sniff sniff sniff.”