The Sniff Is an Important, Versatile Tool of Communication


Jun 18, 2020


Image Credit: Hitesh Sonar for The Swaddle/Getty

Sniffs — swift, often audible inhalations through the nose — are a pesky bodily function, especially amidst the coronavirus pandemic when they’ve taken on a suspect gloom. But a University of Basel scientist, Elliott Hoey, has another take on sniffs, one that staunchly positions them as important, versatile tools of communication.

Sniffing is “a social fact as well as a respiratory act,” writes Hoey in a study published in the journal Research on Language and Social Interaction. Hoey examines 70 different types of sniffs by analyzing recorded telephone conversations between friends and family. He considers sniffing to be intricately woven into how humans talk, providing important non-verbal communication cues.

Sniffs often function as a delay device, much like throat clearings, helping an individual signal to others they are about to speak. When used in the middle of a conversation, sniffing often signals that the individual is hesitating or searching for the right word before they resume speaking. When a person sniffs at the end of the sentence, Hoey observed, it often means that they’re finished and yielding their turn. Here, sniffing becomes an important accessory — while the actual words determine the content of the conversation, sniffs indicate how the conversation happens and who speaks when.

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Sniffs can also be used to send messages, Hoey writes. The “delicacy sniff,” characterized by a sharp intake of breath right before someone starts speaking, when analyzed with facial expressions, often means the speaker is gearing up to voice disagreement, criticism, or bad news. When in public places, such as bathroom stalls, sniffs can also act as a discreetly audible, non-confrontational, and diplomatic gesture to alert other people of one’s presence.

That said, sniffs are not to be confused with in-breaths and out-breaths or, simply put, gasps and sighs. These are more dramatic, often including the nose and mouth in more intense inhalations and exhalations. Sniffs, in comparison, are mellow, more nuanced tools of communication rooted in silence.

Communication through respiration is a natural, often intuitive activity most humans engage in, previous research has found. Despite its ubiquity, the infinite manipulations of air through humans’ mouths and noses — frequency, intensity, time — have prevented scientists from tackling the breadth of such non-verbal communication.

Now, with Hoey’s deep dive, we have better insight into the small, yet vital, breathing technique of sniffing. Hopefully, this helps dilute some of the suspicion next time someone sniffs.


Written By Rajvi Desai

Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle’s Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news and politics in New York City, and dabbled in design and entertainment journalism. Back in the homeland, she’s interested in tackling beauty, sports, politics and human rights in her gender-focused writing, while also co-managing The Swaddle Team’s podcast, Respectfully Disagree.


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