We all know that sneezer. The one who, when their nostrils start to tickle, lets out a sneeze that’s part performance art, part show of dominance. They cock their head back. They grimace. They wheeze. Finally, when they unleash their sinus salvo, it comes with all the subtlety of a shotgun blast.
Loud sneezers are both hilarious and a regular occurrence. But why do certain men — and, in the large majority it is men — sneeze so loudly? Is it a way to assert dominance? A matter of physiology? Is it simply a learned behavior, passed down from one loud honker to another?
First, some interesting background. In 401 BC, the Greek general Xenophon stood before his army of mercenaries and gave a primordial TED Talk loosely titled “Why Marching Into Persia to Dethrone Artaxerxes II Is a Good Idea.” Enthusiasm started to wane about an hour into the speech, but as Xenophon himself wrote in his self-penned epic Anabasis, one simple thing changed the mood of the crowd:
“As he was saying this a man sneezed, and when the soldiers heard it, they all with one impulse made obeisance to the god; And Xenophon said, ‘I move, gentlemen, since at the moment when we were talking about deliverance, an omen from Zeus the Savior was revealed to us…”
A sneeze. A sneeze that was presumably loud enough to interrupt a Patton-like war rally. The soldiers were thus convinced that the mighty Ah-Choo was a sign from the gods that they would be victorious. They rallied, propelled by the sneeze, and marched valiantly into Persia.*
The act of sneezing is entirely involuntary, but as with corporate-mandated uniforms, the first car your parents bought for you, and the body you were born into, humans always find ways to personalize and customize things that have been forced upon them. Whether it’s ascribing meaning to it or adjusting the volume of it, a sneeze usually reveals more about a person’s personality than it does their body type or health. And when we look at why men in particular embrace the sneeze’s potential for maximum aural disruption, we find that, yeah, it’s a little bit biological but that it’s mostly the age-old diagnosis of “dudes being dudes”
The Sound and Fury of a Loud Sneezer
If you’re the kind of person who silences the room in order to give your bottle-rattling beer burps the spotlight they deserve or if you can’t wait to loudly quote Rodney Dangerfield or Eric Cartman immediately following flatulence, odds are your sneezes are equally bombastic.
Speaking to NBC News, neurologist, psychiatrist, and founder of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, Dr. Alan Hirsch explained that “sneezes are like laughter. Some are loud, some are soft. And it’s similar with sneezing…it’s more of a psychological thing and represents the underlying personality or character structure.”
This fact ties into the rapidly eroding idea that nothing truly “manly” can be dainty or soft or accommodating. The size and shape of a guy’s nose only affects sneezing tangentially. And like Dr. Hirsch’s laughter analogy, your nasal dimensions and sinuses actually influence what your voice sounds like (which is why colds give you that recognizable stuffy voice), which in turn can influence what your sneezes sound like. But the volume is still mostly under your control.
A sneeze in and of itself is a wholly ridiculous thing. Your body tenses, your nose starts to twitch and convulse, then your body violently expels air and snot. It’s not exactly dignified. Making an effort to dampen or repress a sneeze is viewed by many as way dainty, certain men either lean into the absurdity of the sneeze and amplify its cartoonishness, or make the act seem so invasive and violent that bystanders should be left wondering how on earth they managed to walk away from such a nasal act of war. What a schnoz this guy must have! The power!
There might also be medical backing for cutting loose. Stifling a sneeze can, in rare cases, lead to physical harm, such as ruptured ear drums, torn throat muscles, or even aneurysms. “Better out than in,” it seems, is better advice than we give it credit for. Still, it is entirely possible to find a middle ground between completely holding a sneeze in until it finds some other, more painful, way to release itself and letting to go in an over-the-top manner.
But again — a lot of guys have been brought up to feel like anything worth doing is worth doing loudly and abrasively. It explains so much, from heavy metal music to muscle cars to Michael Bay.
Sex and the Sinus
Throwing an interesting wrinkle into the question of why a lot of men tend to sneeze loudly and violently is a particularly strange phenomenon. Have you ever sneezed after thinking about sex? Or immediately after sex? Odds are some of you reading this laughed, while others just had a “holy crap” moment. Because there may, indeed, be a connection between sneezing and impure thoughts.
In a 2009 report titled “Sneeze Reflex: Facts and Fiction” published in the Therapeutic Advances in Respiratory Disease journal, authors Murat Songu and Cemal Cingi wrote:
“An association between sexual excitement and sneezing was first described in the nineteenth century [Mackenzie,1884; Watson,1875] followed by a young German otolaryngologist who developed a theory of ‘nasal reflex neurosis’ due to the finding of erectile tissue in both nasal mucous membranes and genital areas [Young, 2002; Jones,1974].”
Their findings uncovered tales of men having uncontrollable sneezing fits following intercourse, and even of sudden sneezes immediately following the mere thought of having sex. Further studies indicated that this phenomenon wasn’t entirely exclusive to men, either.
Even without 19th century science pointing it out, there are obvious similarities between a sneeze and an orgasm. The French call the orgasm la petite mort, which means “the little death” because it’s as if you lose consciousness and agency over your body for a few brief seconds. The reason people started saying “God bless you” after a sneeze comes from the old belief that every time your body convulsed and expelled you lost a part of your soul and it needed to be blessed before it dissolved into the ether (to bring the idea full circle, this concept seems to have been a Christianization of the ancient Greek tradition of saying “Jupiter blesses you” after a sneeze because — as was mentioned earlier saw earlier — sneezes were seen as positive omens from the gods).
“When we think about sneezing, it’s almost orgasmic in its quality,” Dr. Hirsch added in his NBC News feature. “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.”
In the same way a belch or a fart, though rude, announces to the room that one is man who is unashamed of his appetites, so may a loud, rattling sneeze subtly, almost unconsciously, identify someone as a lusty hedonist. Women have long been taught to repress sexual desire, while men are groomed since puberty to nakedly, brazenly hunt for it and brag about it as much as humanly possible. Trumpet it, if you will.
Imagine that. Centuries of antiquated gender norms, sociological mind-washing, pagan superstition, and one-dimensional masculinity — all expressed in a simple ah-choo. Now go get a tissue.
*They would be pretty soundly routed, however, and would see their ranks decimated as they retreated back to the Black Sea in defeat.