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I make a lot of people jump when I enter the room or try to get their attention. I am not sure what exactly I am doing wrong, but I would like to stop it so I am looking for suggestions. I have had a long running joke with my wife and other friends about it, but it is really quite silly and I'd prefer to figure out how to prevent it.

This is something I have noticed over the last few years, in my home, previous job, and current job. I would walk into a room, say 'hello', or 'alright' or some other conventional, friendly British way of announcing my presence, then somebody would shout, jump or scream.

This has happened to a broad range of people; my wife and live-in tenant regularly jump, even when I make an effort to stamp on the carpeted floors to announce my presence if they are not facing me. I work at big nuclear power plants, and have managed to make policemen, firemen, Japanese men, female apprentices, and my boss jump, so I think my behaviour is transcending gender and cultural boundaries.

Just today I went to a new office building, approached a man on the computer from the side, and said "Excuse me, can you tell me where [x] sits?" only for him to jump out of his chair and shout the word "Jesus", which left me feeling pretty awkward since it was an open plan office. He promptly apologised and said I gave him a fright.

I am not hideously ugly, so I do not think that is the problem. I can be softly spoken at times and have a "posh" accent so I have wondered if that has something to do with it.

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    Related question: interpersonal.stackexchange.com/q/14787/1599. Maybe some of the answers there might help here too – Tinkeringbell Sep 2 at 13:23
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    You said there's a "long running joke" with your wife and friends, but have you ever asked them directly why this might be happening? Maybe they know, but feel uncomfortable discussing the issue unless being confronted directly. – chaosflaws Sep 2 at 20:45
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    Sounds like a weird addition, but how big are you? I also tend to make people jump pretty frequently, but I'm a shade under 2m tall, about 100kg and naturally move very quietly (from soft footsteps to moving smoothly to quiet breathing to not rustling clothing to avoiding touching anything as I'm moving through a space), so I know that people suddenly noticing someone my size closing in on them can be a bit of a shock (note: none of this is actually intentional, it's just how I've learned to move) – Dark Hippo Sep 3 at 13:46
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    How close are you to people when you first speak? – Kat Sep 3 at 17:18
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    How is your hearing? You may think your voice is quiet, but perhaps you are actually shouting. (??) – J... Sep 3 at 18:25
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Without seeing you "in action", it's really difficult for us to know what the issue could be. I was going to suggest that you might be very quiet, but you tried stepping loudly and still have the same results. I was also wondering if maybe your friends and coworkers now have make it "a thing", and that they now jump even if they do hear you coming as a joke. But you say it happened recently with someone you didn't know, so...

I think the most likely culprit is still that you're very quiet (not just in noise, but as a presence), and so people are surprised because they don't hear you or see you coming. I'm someone who is quite jumpy, so if I don't hear you coming and you touch me or speak up when you're close to me (and I didn't expect someone being that close), I'll jump. My live-in boyfriend is the one it happens the most with, but I don't think it's because he's doing something special, but because we live together.

So try again to make more noise when approaching people. Don't stomp, try more for a natural sound, like coughing and shuffling your feet. Making unnatural big sounds might not register to people's brain as "someone is approaching". Also, when you want to talk to someone, take first one step back. It could be you're someone who has a smaller personal space and so you encroach on other's more easily ? So when you step up to someone, try to keep a bit more distance when announcing yourself. And if possible, try to enter their field of vision before speaking, do not come from behind.

For example at work, if I have to talk to a colleague, I'll go the side of his desk, to make sure he at least has a sense of me in his peripheral vision. People are often focused on their work, so they'll be less startled if they sense a presence first I think. If they have headphones on, I'll wave my hand a bit until they turn to see me (again, I catch their peripheral vision, and I keep a bit of distance, don't put your hand right in front of their face). It's not an exact science, you'll have to play with it if you try them. But I see this is also the type of things my colleagues do (like stand at someone's desk before speaking).

But these are all shots in the dark, because without seeing you we can't be sure what you're doing that's unusual. The best thing to do is ask people close to you. Ask your wife, ask your friends, ask your coworkers. Also, look at the people around you. I think it would be easier at work : look at how people catch each other's attention, and see what you're doing differently. My guess is it's a mix of the above : you're quiet, you're too close when you speak up, and you're coming at an angle where they couldn't have seen you coming.

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    +1, but in particular I'd draw attention to your last 2 sentences - they give a succinct summary of the likely issue (being closer than expected when you speak), and some actionable advice. – Roland Heath Sep 3 at 3:15
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    Other options for catching their attention: clear your throat or say "Excuse me" when approaching, but before getting too close! – Bernat Sep 3 at 9:23
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    Just in case, silently approaching people while recording a video of the situation to share with us will probably not make the situation less awkward. – mgarciaisaia Sep 4 at 5:05
  • I've also suggested this here, but as your answer talks about peripheral vision too: Any chance you could work in a reference/visualization of where people's peripheral vision 'zone' is, so OP does have a starting point and doesn't have to guess/try-and-error as much? – Tinkeringbell Sep 4 at 8:01
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I also have that ability to scare people because I move silently and without noise, so I have developed a series of actions that will get people's attention:

1) Knock on the door frame/wall when entering a room

This sound is associated with people entering. Feet stomping can be mistaken for neighbors and are usually tuned out. A knocking sound, however, is typically associated with a door, which translates to a person requesting an audience.

2) Wait for eye contact

This is a universal acknowledgement. If a person made visual contact, they are obviously aware of your presence and are ready to listen to you. Even though people are able to "hear" you without looking at you, that is not how a conversation works. A proper conversation should have eye contact, and it is good to wait for eye contact before using words that have critical information.

3) Make a throat clearing sound, or small cough, before starting to speak

Again, this is one of those sounds that is associated with a person trying to get attention. If you only made the sound then it is actually a bit rude, but if you proceed with words, then it is fine.

  • I am very quiet too (my husband likes to call me his "ninja"), and I use these same actions to announce me. – Lucia Bentivoglio Sep 5 at 7:08
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The basic thing you are doing wrong is talking to people before they have realized you are there.

How do you know when they know you are there? Simple: you watch to see when they look at you. You don't need to make noises, etc. Just position yourself so you are in the person's peripheral vision, and wait.

Human peripheral vision evolved to protect people against threats creeping up on them without their knowledge. It is very low quality in terms of showing detail, but it is very good at noticing when something changes at the edge of your range of vision. Even if somebody is apparently totally fixated on looking at a computer screen or whatever, within a few seconds their brain will get the message that something nearby in the environment has changed, and they will turn their head to get a better look at it and see what it is.

If someone doesn't seem to notice you within a few seconds, just move about slowly. Peripheral vision is good at detecting movement and recognizing it as something that needs to be investigated to see if it is a threat or not.

When as the other person has looked at you, THEN you can ask your question without frightening them - even if they immediately stop looking at you and go back to what they were doing before.

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    What do you do when they still haven't noticed you after shuffling around a bit? I have the same problem as OP, and sometimes I'll end up standing next to them for around 30 seconds without them noticing (even if I move side-to-side). Then I start to feel anxious that they'll think I'm trying to read what's on their computer screen. – Fodder Sep 3 at 3:39
  • @Fodder in those cases I usually make a sound as others have suggested, say their name, or tap on the side of their desk or computer monitor – BKlassen Sep 3 at 19:19
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    This actually specifically terrifies my coworkers. Even though they notice me quite quickly (a few seconds) they don't know how long it took to notice me and realizing that there was someone next to them for an unknown length of time makes them jump. (My coworkers are generally wearing headphones and are desks make it difficult to get in front of someone without seriously being in their personal space, so "stand next to them and try and wave in their periphery" is about as good as we've got.) – user3067860 Sep 3 at 20:18
  • Hey! Your answer seems to make some claims about peripheral vision, but it would probably benefit from at least some reference/visualization about where someone's peripheral vision is, and where OP should position themselves to be in that zone. It would also be nice if you could add some evidence to the claim that putting yourself in someone's peripheral vision doesn't startle them as much as talking without them having seen you: If peripheral vision evolved to notice threats, why would someone not feel as scared/startled by that as someone suddenly talking? – Tinkeringbell Sep 4 at 7:43
  • I like this answer in general, and was thinking of posting one along similar lines (ie: about getting in the person's line of sight before speaking to them.) However, I would suggest, rather than lurking in their peripheral vision, actually try to get in front of them whenever possible. If it's not possible to get in front of them, then yeah, knocking, waving, something of that sort, but hopefully people who are positioned such that others can't stand in front of them will be accustomed to people coming at them from the sides. – Steve-O Sep 4 at 13:11
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I've had this problem myself in the past.

The easiest and least obtrusive way to make someone aware of your presence is through vibration; if they're sitting at a desk, simply knocking a couple of times on the top of the desk as if it were a door works a charm. (This can be arbitrarily moderated if even this causes people to jump; one of my teammates habitually gets my attention by gently tapping his fingernails on my desk.) Make sure you're physically as far away from the person as you can get, perhaps leaning back very slightly as you do it; it would defeat the point if you were looming over them while you rapped on the desk. You need to give them enough space for their internal lizard-brain to not recognise you instantly as a threat.

As for at home, consider announcing your presence verbally some time before you enter the room: just start saying (loudly) whatever it is you were going to say, before you quite get to the room. In my experience, it's physical presence that scares people; talking before you arrive is quite literally announcing your presence, leading the interlocutor to expect you to appear. If you weren't going to say anything, you can also do this with some sort of gentle cough.

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I don't have this level of problem, but I am aware of the potential as I go about my day. Most often it occurs when I am out walking and come up behind a slower pedestrian. I certainly don't want to give some elderly citizen a heart attack by overtaking them "out of nowhere".

So I whistle.

A few jaunty, bars, as if I walk and whistle all the livelong day, gives a gentle alert to one and all. (My go-to is "Peter and the Wolf")

And, it has served me well in office type situations as I come down the hallway.

  • Whistling can be pretty annoying though. A quick pretend cough, or a sniff, does the job. – Lightness Races in Orbit Sep 5 at 17:53
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Difficult question, I don't think there is any singular set of actions you can do to make sure the other person won't jump. In fact, I think its far less to do with something you are doing and far more to do with the other people.

Growing up, I don't think I made a single person jump. Ever. I could hide in a wardrobe and then bomb-dive on the bed right behind someone as they are about to fall asleep and all I would get is an "again, Jesse?". (slight exaggeration but you get my point)

Fast forward to when I lived with my aunt and it was the exact opposite. If she was reading there was not a single way I could get her attention WITHOUT making her jump. I tried a lot of different things. Knock? Cough? Stand still at the door? Scrape feet as I walk? Go back outside, yell her name and then come in again making sure to make as much noise as possible? no matter what I did she would get the biggest fright.

So for you, I will make some assumptions and say that these people were not expecting someone to "cough behind them" or "say hi" or whatever it is you did that made them jump, and that is why they jumped. So while using vibrations, sound or distance to let someone know you are there might be generally helpful suggestions to passively let them know you are there, I think its less about the technique and more about simply figuring out what they are expecting. At work I'm used to people knocking on my door so knocking on my door to get my attention would not make me jump. Same with yelling my name at home, coughing on the train.. you get the idea.

So when talking to someone new, I think all that is needed is a brief moment of thought as to how they expect to be interrupted. For the vast majority of situations all it will come down to is some noise or movement or alert that you are there before you actually start talking to them. For the few outliers then don't worry about it, at least your tried.

For your close friends and girlfriend I do have another suggestion though. That is to make _____ behaviour expected. I understand what its like to have a loved one constantly be scared anytime you want to say hello, I actually felt quite hurt and started thinking that it was something about me aunt was scared of, not just jumping at an unexpected sound. Don't worry the solution is easy. Repeated behaviour. Although she jumped the first few times I knocked on the wall, after doing the same thing all year, no matter what she was doing a knock at the wall was something familiar and expected and her jumping had long since stopped being a problem.

So if your girlfriend is anywhere near as skittish as my aunt I can't suggest enough to you that you just pick some specific way of letting her know you are there. Doesn't matter what it is but a softer alert is probably easier. You could look at some of the other solutions here for ideas. If you do the same thing 100 times I hardly think it will make her jump anymore.

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I'm quite quiet on my feet, to the extent that in soft shoes I make less noise with my footsteps than my keys make in my pocket. Combined with being tall it's easy to sneak up on people without meaning to then seem to stand over them. Wearing shoes with harder soles helps, as does getting out keys as I approach the (lab/office) door even if I know it's unlocked. It's even possible to rattle a door slightly against the latch before you open it - if there is a door. These are natural noises that indicate that you're approaching; knocking on a door can be quite a surprise if someone's concentrating and you don't actually want to .

Greeting someone from further away and in a softer voice than seems normal is also an easy way to be non-startling. With jumpy people even this should be done at a good moment, not (for example) while they're pouring boiling water into their tea or assembling something delicate. So you need to be aware of what's going on. A quiet first syllable before the main part of a greeting ("Ah, hello") may be useful in some cases.

Headphones on jumpy people aren't a good combination. Then it helps to not get too close before entering their peripheral vision - which can be quite a narrow field if they're concentrating on something on the desk in front of them.

I'm not saying you crowd people or creep up on them, but if you try to let them know you're there about a pace further away than you currently do, it will help a lot. Even then some people in some situations will always be startled.

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I've had similar issues. Growing up, my father worked night shifts and I had to be quiet around the house while he slept during the day. Growing up, I took being quiet as part of my persona and hadn't really noticed it until I started living with my partner. She tells me off regularly for frightening her when I come up stairs and she doesn't hear me. Some of the remedies I've tried with varying success include:

  • Heavier footsteps
  • Humming while walking over to someone I'm going to see
  • Gently tapping the door/door frame when entering the room
  • Making a point of saying hello to people while passing them on the way to see someone (it's a variation of the humming remedy)
  • Sending a text/IM asking if they're available for a chat

In short, you need to make your presence known in a way that doesn't cause shock or catches people unawares.

The remedies I've suggested are quite contrived but it seems you're in a similar situation to me and find being quiet a natural part of yourself. There isn't one instant fix and there isn't something that will work for everyone. Try what I've suggested and see what works for you. You may even find other ways to make your presence known in a subtle way. I'd appreciate your feedback if you find something I've not mentioned that works for you. Good luck!

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    Humming or whistling is good. If they still don't notice you, then tell them it's their fault. – FarO Sep 4 at 9:32
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The startle response is a reflex, the brain's way of preparing you to defend yourself against a threat sneaking up on you. People get startled when they 1) aren't aware that you're there and you 2) suddenly make a sound 3) at a relatively close range. Eliminating any one of those three factors should resolve your problem.

In a lot of cases, the first is the easiest to resolve. Approach them from a different angle that places you beside or in front of them instead of behind. Sound won't startle someone if they can see the speaker. Suddenly sliding into someone's peripheral vision at close range can be startling, though, so try to make them see you while you're still 2-3 arm's lengths away. Even seeing your shadow or reflection can be enough for them to subconsciously detect your presence and be less likely to startle.

For the second factor, it's interesting to note that someone is less likely to startle if the sound that you make is immediately preceded by a quieter sound (that is, there's less contrast between your speaking and the background noise level). In a work environment, you can often accomplish this with a soft knock on the person's door/wall/desk. I had decent success by keeping a couple of coins in the same pocket as my keys. They make just enough of a jangling sound that I'm detectable at 6-10 paces, but not loud enough to be annoying. A former manager of mine wore hard-soled shoes and developed a rather distinct way of approaching. It's hard to describe but when he approached you and stopped walking, his final step with each leg was completely flat-footed (instead of striking heel-first). It made a soft clomp clomp sound that was louder than the normal background noise of people walking by, but not so loud as to be heard outside the immediate vicinity. Anything you can do to make a small amount of noise as you approach would work. Carry a retractable pen with you and click the button on it as you walk. Wear jewelry or an ID lanyard that jingles a bit as you move.

For the third factor, remember that the startle reflex is about reacting to danger. Speaking when you are within arm's reach of someone would likely startle them, but speaking at the same volume while 6-8 feet away is significantly less startling (presumably because you're far enough away that the brain doesn't consider you an immediate threat). If you're forced to approach someone from behind, speak to them from the doorway instead of walking all the way up to them. Even if you still surprise them, it's less likely to trigger an uncomfortably-severe startle reflex.

Be on the lookout for people who intentionally put themselves in situations where they're easy to startle. For example, someone whose workstation faces into a corner and who works with headphones on, or someone who's engrossed in a movie with the volume turned up. You'll have to make double the effort for them.

protected by OldPadawan Sep 4 at 11:35

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