My colleague has ear-splitting sneezes, should I say something?

Someone at my organisation, who sits quite close to me in the office, does what I describe as “scream sneezing”. These are not just loud sneezes, they are hellish howls that never get less frightening, even though they happen at least eight times a week.

I have two close friends at work. They are acting like a devil and angel on my shoulder. One is offended by the noises and thinks we should tell our colleague to “shut up”. The other feels sorry for the sneezer, and says they are clearly self-conscious about the noise. They say that approaching them would only cause distress. As a leader in this team, I feel I should say something, but I’m not sure what. What would your advice be?

It may feel cathartic to tell your loud sneezing colleague to shut up, but that’s unlikely to be the best course of action.
It may feel cathartic to tell your loud sneezing colleague to shut up, but that’s unlikely to be the best course of action.Credit: iStock

We get a few questions at Work Therapy about annoying or distracting personal habits and I generally think the best course of action depends on the disruptive person’s intention. That seems to be precisely the question your “angel” and “devil” have already answered in their own minds: is this person being deliberately objectionable or are they doing something that is unavoidable?

I hope I can say this without being sued by the Rolling Stones: I have sympathy for the devil. I have an irrational dislike of certain sneezing – in my case, loudness isn’t the problem; it’s frequency. If I hear more than five sneezes in quick succession, I inevitably clench with anger.

If the number reaches 10 I find myself seething. Any more than that and I’m barely able to control my fury – “shut up”, at that point, seems like an overly polite request to me. I’ve also worked in an office with an extraordinarily loud sneezer, and it wasn’t fun.

I can see where your friend is coming from and understand their desire to end this with a curt telling off. But I’m not sure that this is the right approach.

My main piece of advice would be that unless you’re certain this person is being a smart arse, offer them kindness.

Your cacophonous peer may deserve a bollocking, but only if it’s clear their sneezes are some kind of deliberate provocation or ridiculous show. And while it’s true that some people just love attention, whether that comes in the form of praise and adulation or hearing their colleagues shriek with alarm as they let rip with another 180-decibel nasopharyngeal monstrosity, I think it’s a smaller proportion of the population than we sometimes like to imagine.

As obvious as it sounds, it’s probably worth underlining the fact that a sneeze is an autonomic response to irritants (or, in some people, bright lights). You can exaggerate the sound of a sneeze, but it’s very difficult to make a sneeze happen.

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Partly for this reason, I think it’s much, much more likely that your angel is on the money here. The scream sneezer is likely aware of how shocking their daily blasts are, and may even be embarrassed by the effect it has on others.

So why don’t they tone them down? I don’t think it’s because they like to annoy their co-workers. I think it’s because they can’t. And while it might be satisfying to ask this person to “shut up”, it’s unlikely to be helpful. It could even be dangerous: there are some quite graphic medical case studies about what happens when someone attempts to wholly contain their sneeze – ruptured eardrums, throat tissue and blood vessels aren’t even the worst of it.

If they can’t quieten, could they at least move? Again, probably not. We all know that a sneeze is like an annoying relative: they rarely give notice before the turn up. So unless this person is a cartoon character, and says “Ah” a dozen times before releasing their blaring “Choo!” moving into a less crowded part of the office, or into a soundproof meeting room, is nice in theory but probably useless in practice.

If they can’t move, can they at least show some remorse or ruefulness? It sounds from your email as if this person hasn’t addressed their loud sneezing at work and doesn’t apologise for it. That may come across as rude – a form of convenient obliviousness – and gives further grist to your devil’s mill. But I think that it’s much more likely a product of self-consciousness, as your angel has suggested.

I’m not saying you should just pretend this isn’t happening. And, as a leader in your team, you may feel obligated to say something. If you do, my main piece of advice would be that unless you’re certain this person is being a smart arse, offer them kindness.

Send your questions to Work Therapy by emailing [email protected]

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