What Do You Say When Someone Coughs, Sneezes, or Hiccups?

In the realm of social etiquette and polite communication, it’s crucial to know how to respond when someone coughs, sneezes, or experiences hiccups.

These everyday occurrences can catch us off guard, and our reactions can either make the person feel at ease or add to their discomfort.

This article delves into the nuances of what to say in such situations, providing examples and guidelines for appropriate responses to ensure smooth and considerate communication.

Responding to a Cough

Example 1: Context: You are at a business meeting with colleagues.

When someone coughs during a business meeting, your response should be both empathetic and professional. You might say, “I hope you’re feeling okay. Would you like a glass of water?” This response shows concern for the person’s well-being and offers practical assistance.

Example 2: Context: You are at a formal dinner party.

In a more formal setting like a dinner party, a discreet and understated response is appropriate. A simple, “Bless you,” or “Excuse me,” acknowledges the cough without drawing too much attention to it.

Example 3: Context: You are in a casual, social gathering.

In a casual gathering with friends, a light-hearted response can help break the tension caused by a cough. You might say, “Sounds like you have a tickle in your throat. Happens to the best of us!”

Guidelines for Responding to a Cough:

  • Be empathetic and show concern for the person’s well-being.
  • Offer assistance if appropriate, such as water or a cough drop.
  • Tailor your response to the formality of the setting.
  • Keep your response discreet in formal settings.

Reacting to a Sneeze

Example 1: Context: You are in a crowded elevator.

When someone sneezes in a confined space like an elevator, it’s polite to say, “Bless you” or “Gesundheit.” These phrases acknowledge the sneeze and convey well wishes, fostering a considerate atmosphere.

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Example 2: Context: You are at a family dinner.

In a more intimate setting, like a family dinner, you can take a more personal approach. Say, “Are you coming down with a cold?” or “Do you need a tissue?” These responses show care and consideration for the individual.

Example 3: Context: You are at a public lecture or seminar.

In a formal setting, such as a public lecture, it’s best to maintain decorum. A simple, “Excuse me,” is a polite way to acknowledge the sneeze without disrupting the proceedings.

Guidelines for Reacting to a Sneeze:

  • Use phrases like “Bless you” or “Gesundheit” to convey well wishes.
  • In a more personal setting, offer assistance or inquire about the person’s well-being.
  • Keep responses brief and considerate of the context.

Handling Hiccups

Example 1: Context: You are in a casual conversation with a friend.

When a friend suddenly gets hiccups during a relaxed chat, you can respond humorously to lighten the mood. Say something like, “Uh-oh, looks like you’ve caught the hiccups bug!” This not only acknowledges the hiccup but also injects some humor into the situation.

Example 2: Context: You are in a professional meeting.

In a formal meeting, acknowledging hiccups should be done professionally. Say, “I understand that hiccups can be quite bothersome. Take your time, and let us know if you need a moment.” This response demonstrates understanding and patience.

Example 3: Context: You are at a family gathering.

At a family gathering, you can take a caring approach. Offer, “Would you like some water or a spoonful of sugar? That might help.” This response combines concern with a practical suggestion to alleviate the hiccups.

Guidelines for Handling Hiccups:

  • Use humor in casual settings to lighten the mood.
  • In formal settings, express understanding and patience.
  • In a family or close-knit setting, offer practical remedies like water or sugar.

Responding When Noisy Discomfort Occurs

Sometimes, we find ourselves in situations where discomforting bodily noises, like burping or stomach rumbling, can’t be ignored. Responding appropriately in these cases is vital to maintain politeness and composure.

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Example 1: Context: You are at a formal dinner party, and someone burps unintentionally.

In this scenario, the key is to maintain decorum and not draw attention to the burp. Continue your conversation as if nothing happened. Ignoring the burp is the polite response in a formal setting.

Example 2: Context: You are in a casual gathering, and someone’s stomach loudly rumbles.

To address a stomach rumble, you can make light of the situation by saying, “I guess it’s time for dinner!” or “Your stomach sounds like it’s ready for a feast.” This response acknowledges the noise without causing embarrassment.

Example 3: Context: You are in a business meeting, and someone’s phone loudly vibrates.

When a phone vibrates loudly in a meeting, it’s best to maintain professionalism. Say, “It happens to the best of us,” and continue with the discussion. This response demonstrates understanding while keeping the meeting on track.

Guidelines for Responding to Noisy Discomfort:

  • In formal settings, ignore bodily noises like burps.
  • Use humor to diffuse tension in casual gatherings.
  • Maintain professionalism in business or formal meetings.

Handling Uncontrollable Laughter

While laughter is generally a pleasant experience, uncontrollable laughter can sometimes be embarrassing or disruptive. Knowing how to respond when someone can’t stop laughing is crucial to maintain a comfortable atmosphere.

Example 1: Context: You are in a work meeting, and someone bursts into laughter.

In a professional setting, acknowledge the laughter politely and encourage the person to regain composure. Say, “I’m glad something’s amusing, but let’s get back to our discussion.” This response gently guides the meeting back on track.

Example 2: Context: You are in a casual setting with friends, and someone can’t stop laughing.

Among friends, it’s acceptable to join in the laughter. Say, “That was hilarious; I can’t blame you for laughing so hard!” This response fosters a relaxed and enjoyable environment.

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Example 3: Context: You are at a formal event, and someone starts laughing uncontrollably during a speech.

In a formal setting, such as a wedding or a conference, maintain decorum. Offer a subtle smile and continue listening attentively. This response helps prevent further disruption.

Guidelines for Handling Uncontrollable Laughter:

  • In a professional setting, gently guide the person back to the topic at hand.
  • Among friends, join in the laughter to maintain a relaxed atmosphere.
  • In formal events, maintain decorum and continue listening politely.

Addressing Inadvertent Bodily Movements

Inadvertent bodily movements, like a sudden twitch or a yawn, can occur unexpectedly. Knowing how to respond with grace is essential to avoid embarrassment.

Example 1: Context: You are in a serious conversation, and someone yawns involuntarily.

In a serious conversation, acknowledging the yawn with empathy is appropriate. Say, “I can see you’re tired; we can continue later if you’d like.” This response shows understanding and consideration.

Example 2: Context: You are in a casual setting, and someone has a sudden twitch.

In a relaxed setting, a light-hearted response can help ease any potential embarrassment. Say, “Your body just wanted to do a little dance, it seems!” This response adds humor without making the person uncomfortable.

Example 3: Context: You are in a business presentation, and someone nods off briefly.

In a professional setting, address the situation tactfully. Say, “I understand these meetings can be long. Let’s take a short break to recharge.” This response recognizes the need for a break while maintaining professionalism.

Guidelines for Addressing Inadvertent Bodily Movements:

  • Show empathy in serious conversations.
  • Use humor to diffuse tension in casual settings.
  • Maintain professionalism in business settings while addressing the issue.


Effective communication is not just about what we say but also how we respond to everyday occurrences. Knowing how to react when someone coughs, sneezes, hiccups, or experiences other bodily phenomena can greatly impact the quality of our interactions.

By following these guidelines and examples, we can navigate these situations with grace and consideration, fostering a more harmonious and polite social environment.