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by Julia Sneden

I went in for my yearly physical the other day, and as I stepped off the scale, I heaved a deep sigh. The wise nurse didn’t make a comment: my sigh said it all.

A short time later, as she was giving me a shot, I found myself emitting something between a sigh and a grunt, call it a guttural sigh, and this time she smiled and said: “That’s a new one. We’ve been talking about how often people sigh when they visit the doctor’s office. We’ve started to categorize the various types of sighs.”

It was an entertaining thought, and I have found myself noticing and cataloguing sighs ever since. My own repertoire is fairly impressive, but the inventiveness and expressiveness of the sighs of others put mine to shame.

I’ve read that sighing is: (a) an unconscious method of providing needed oxygen; (b) a desperate grab for thinking time before one must make a decision; (c) the body’s cry for a relaxing moment.

To me, however, sighing is first and foremost a means of communication.

Sighs can be voiced or unvoiced, i.e. with or without the involvement of the vocal chords.

Among the voiced are:

The rumbly air sigh — air that rushes forcedly past the vocal chords, which flutter without producing an actual groan.

The growling sigh — a sigh/groan combination. Done right, it’s highly satisfying.

The crooning sigh — an expression of utter content at the end of something wonderful (insert your own something here)

The sleepy, don’t-mess-with-me-sigh — often a real groan, but more usually a mumbling air mass muffled by a pillow

Unvoiced sighs include:

The whisper of air — what escapes at the end of a sentence that trails off, as in: “Well, if that’s what you really want ...”

The bosom-heaving sigh — a gust from full lungs. This can be explosive or simply a long, lips-pursed, controlled stream of air.

The surprised sigh — escapes involuntarily; usually accompanied by raised eyebrows and a head that’s canted to one side — cheeks puffed out, eyebrows raised high.

The wistful sigh — eyes crinkled, head tilted, eyebrows raised and drawn together

The skeptical sigh — mouth tightened (one or both sides), eyes rolling, sigh puffing out from tight lips

The stunned sigh — an unvoiced “whoo!” eyes open wide

I’m not sure this really belongs here, but — The TV sigh — something people do when they’re watching something funny, but don’t want to laugh out loud and miss the next line. It goes something like this: “sss sss sss” and is expressed through a smiling mouth. Stage actors, who are trained to “hold” the next line to allow for a laugh, report that more and more, audiences give TV sighs that come across as a prolonged hiss, instead of laughing aloud ... very disheartening to an actor.

The foregoing are just a few of the many permutations of a sigh. In the true spirit of sighsmological investigation, I have come up with the Sneden Sighsmographic Scale, a rating of the ten most effective sighs, with #1 being the sure-fire accomplisher.

10. The sleepy, don’t mess-with-me sigh: You know it isn’t going to work, and wouldn’t bother with it if you were anywhere near awake. Effectiveness is determined by the persistence of the awakener (alarm: 0; angry Mom: 10).

9. The crooning sigh. It’s not effective, really, just incredibly expressive.

8. The frustrated sigh: it gets noticed, but doesn’t accomplish much beyond garnering nodding attention from others in the line with you.

7. The whisper of air: good way to end when you can’t figure out what to say next, as in “uh ... well ... (sigh)”

6. The bosom heaver: Can be a very rewarding way to express anger explosively. Conversely, can lower blood pressure and ease tensions when delivered as a long, slow stream of air.

5. The stunned sigh: This one is completely involuntary, but it is an amazing attention-getter, and is useful for occasions both happy and outrageous.

4. The skeptical sigh: Sometimes a good skeptical sigh is worth a hundred words.

3. The painful process sigh: Good for when your pedicurist is trimming mighty close to a tender spot — accompanied by closed eyes. Can be exhaled through the mouth or expelled slowly from the nose.

2. The shoulders-up-and-down sigh: usually accompanied a glare and a statement like “Why do you always pick on ...”

1. The wistful sigh — effectiveness can be attested to by anyone who has ever taken a child to a good toy store, or accompanied a golfer to the pro shop. Just pull out your wallet. You’re toast.


Julia Sneden is a writer, friend, teacher, wife, mother, Grandmother, care-giver and Senior Women Web's Resident Observer.  She lives in North Carolina and can be reached by email.



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