First of all, I'm not sneaking up on people on purpose. But it seems, that I'm quite Ninja-like in my movements and this has caused problems. People are immersed in something (e. g. computer, TV, music etc.) and I want to interact with them in some way, but whatever I do, it frightens them terribly.

Situation

One sample situation is my visit to aunt "Alice". She is about 60 years old and sits in the living room, reading a good book. I need to ask her something. In order to reach her, I even have to walk down old stairs and hope that I make enough noise. But I don't. So finally I stand in the living room (Alice is facing away from the door) right behind her. She has absolutely no idea of my presence. *What shall I do now?"

If I pat her on the shoulder or say something or walk into her line of sight, I scare the living daylights out of her. But I don't want to. Is there even a way out?

I'm not sure that it is always entirely my fault, e. g. when someone is listening to music wearing headhones (also already encountered). I'm not trying hard to move silently and stamping can also become annoying. So far, I have found no way out.

Question

How do I announce my presence to someone who is not aware of it?

My goal is to establish communication without frightening them too much.

I'm looking for verbal or non-verbal cues and strategies. The starting point is the moment I stand behind them (but not necessarily, if you have a totally different idea), since only then do I know that they are not aware of my presence.

  • 8
    Alice was.. daunted, Anne? – klskl Oct 3 '17 at 12:39
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    When I'm walking on a sidewalk and I approach someone who doesn't seem to be aware of me (such as to pass them, or at night, etc), I will sometimes exaggerate my footfalls by dragging my feet slightly on the pavement. This is usually enough noise to get their attention. However, this also depend on the surface you are walking on. – ckb Oct 5 '17 at 0:33
  • This is exactly opposite of what I'm doing. I usually does this on purpose (not on seniors, obviously) – Vylix Oct 5 '17 at 5:01
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    I cough, or clear my throat. They know, it's not a real, but that's the point. – An old man in the sea. Oct 5 '17 at 23:31
  • Does this happen with all people or only some? How often do you startle people? – Harry Weasley Oct 9 '17 at 17:10

11 Answers 11

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Right off the bat, I see some possibilities. I have some experience in this because I still live with my parents and when I am gaming with my headset I just don't hear them and since I'm focused on what I'm doing I don't notice them either, just like your example.

The trick commonly used is to flash the room's lights, when applicable, while calling for the person at the same time. Although, they sometimes scare me by coming close to me at night when I have all lights off and slam my desk while calling for me. That's a no-go :)

If you see that's too much for Alice or that she can hear you clearly (no sound impairing environment like the headphones' problem), you knock on the living room's door before reaching up to her, this way she does not get scared by an unexpected close voice or person. A material sound, if not too harsh, does not scare a person like sneaking up on somebody.

Best of luck!

  • 31
    It's fairly common in work environments to knock when entering a room, even when the door is open, for this exact reason. – Erik Oct 3 '17 at 9:51
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    Flashing the lights is standard in the Deaf community. – TRiG Oct 4 '17 at 18:50
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    @TRiG as I'm learning about Deaf community, you just give an important insight of the Deaf community! – Vylix Oct 5 '17 at 5:03

If you have a wall near enough, you can always knock on it. It also works with other stuff, like a table. I never tried with floors, but maybe it also works.


What I wrote is based on my own experience, and for me knocking on the wall or on some nearby furniture works better than saying something or making an *ahem * noise behind the person. For example, I got used to knock on the wall to let my bachelor thesis tutor know I wanted something, because acknowledging my presence verbally used to scare him a lot. In the rare cases someone did this to me (knocking instead of talking), I just noticed his presence without being frightened.

I have been searching for an explanation on why knocking works better than speaking or calling, but I found none. My guess is that this works in part because on how the sound is transmitted via something solid instead through air, and it becomes in part something felt. Maybe in part also because of how sound behaves, but it is just a guess.

  • 1
    The question specifically says they don't wish to stomp on the floor. Please note than answers need to do more than just suggest a solution. They need to support that solution by explaining why they work and (hopefully) recount personal experience with this. – Catija Oct 3 '17 at 15:20
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    @Catija To be fair, this implies knocking on the floor, not stomping. Far more awkward; but a lot less disruptive (unless someone is trying to walk past). – JMac Oct 3 '17 at 16:03
  • @Catija I just enhanced my answer to include my personal experiences, and a guess on why that works. It's just a guess because I didn't find anything about this subject. – DarkPurpleShadow Oct 3 '17 at 18:09
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    My guess would be that if you knock, they have to actively look in order to discover the source of the knocking sound. If you speak, then your presence is announced before they're aware that anyone is there at all, thus startling them. If that makes any sense. – sig_seg_v Oct 4 '17 at 4:17
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    I agree with knocking on the wall. do it a good distance away also, so it isn't a fright for people to have a sudden noise closely. Knocking is a traditional way to get someone's attention, so it's not as obnoxious as forcing yourself to make unaccustomed noises like whistling, laughing, or stomping about. you can even cheerfully say "knock, knock!" if so inclined, and it would likely be perceived as charming. – NOP Oct 4 '17 at 5:26

It is pretty traditional in this circumstance to affect a small cough or clearing of the throat. (Usually written as "ahem".) This might cause the person to jump, but probably less so than suddenly touching them.

If that doesn't work, try "Excuse me — sorry to interrupt." Again, they might be a bit startled, but you've already apologized.

If you're coming into a room with an open door, and the occupant doesn't notice you, you could still knock lightly on the door or doorframe and wait to enter. This too might cause a small start, but you've acted politely and within social norms. Follow up with "sorry to startle you", if necessary.

This is all completely normal; I think going much beyond this is over-thinking and over-complicating.

  • 1
    Tone of voice is important in a such a greeting, as well as the words used. Also say it from a reasonable distance away (like just outside the doorway). – Chris H Oct 3 '17 at 14:28
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    Yes. Don't say it like this. – mattdm Oct 3 '17 at 14:35
  • That's my listening sorted for the rest of the afternoon – Chris H Oct 3 '17 at 15:00
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    You can also begin speaking well before you get "right behind" her. Someone speaking as they approach is less frightening than someone suddenly speaking in close proximity. – Leatherwing Oct 3 '17 at 17:04

I'm with the folks who try to announce their presence from afar: knock on the door, call out, "Alice?" before you even enter the room, drop your keys, anything to make noise at the entrance.

However, I would never touch someone who hasn't noticed my presence. The closer you are, the scarier it has the potential to be. I would walk in a wide arc until they could catch me in their peripheral vision, and I would approach them from in front.

If they still don't look up, move your hand up and down, calling, "Alice?" They might still be startled, but you've done everything you can to not do so.

It seems like everyone wears their headphones these days. But I don't remember scaring anyone recently...

  • Dropping your keys will certainly surprise someone who is focused and not wearing headphone. Key drop usually sounds pretty loud. As an alternative, try dropping on a soft surface, like doormat. The sound of the keys will be usually enough to draw attention, but without the loud drop sound. We usually not react well with sounds of something dropping. – Vylix Oct 5 '17 at 5:06
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    If keys don't work, you can also try dishes :) – Mehrdad Oct 5 '17 at 9:24
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    @Vylix - I think that's might be a bit of an overreaction; in that case, my first two choices (calling "Alice?" before getting to the door, and a knock on the door) would have worked. Besides, keys aren't that bad these days; the biggest part of my keys is plastic, and most floors aren't marble or ceramic. Keys on wood or vinyl aren't too bad (this comes from someone who constantly drops her keys.) I do agree that sneaking up to someone and dropping your keys behind them is not a good idea. – anongoodnurse Oct 5 '17 at 13:01
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    I definitely think the OP's problem is largely stemming from the fact that s/he waits until being in the same room to say anything, thus startling the aunt. +1 for announcing presence from afar/calling out before entering the room. – Darren Oct 5 '17 at 13:27

If you can't already, learn how to whistle a tune.

Make sure it is a jovial one, not something like the theme song from Jaws for instance. And it also definitely helps, for everybody's sanity, if you can whistle in tune! Use it on your approach if you can see that you are going to startle them.

  • 18
    I can't make out whether whistling the Jaws tune while coming up to people from behind would be hilarious or terrifying. – Erik Oct 3 '17 at 9:52
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    Note, though, that whistling can be like fingernails on a chalkboard to some. I usually to jangle the keys in my pocket or something similar when trying to produce audio signal on approach. – Monica Cellio Oct 3 '17 at 16:00
  • Whistling at your older aunt would be a bit disrespectful where I'm from. – Azor Ahai Oct 3 '17 at 16:35
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    @Azor-Ahai. Whistling at someone is not the same as just whistling, at least in Anglo culture, I believe. – TRiG Oct 4 '17 at 18:53
  • @TRiG Nevertheless, I still would find it rude to try and get someone's attention by whistling. – Azor Ahai Oct 4 '17 at 20:34

I once had this exact situation with a coworker who would jump out of her skin when I tried to catch her attention in her cubicle, no matter what I tried or how gently I tried to do it. (And then she would round on me angrily and accuse "you scared me!!!!") After many attempts I finally figured out how to solve the problem.

Okay, you've walked up to the person and have suddenly remembered that she will be startled.

  1. Instead of trying to catch her attention just yet, walk away about 15 feet, reach into your pocket, and start jingling your keys continuously.
  2. Approach her again while jingling your keys, and very gently say her name.

This time, she won't be startled, and may even turn toward you before you say her name. Something about the sound of the jingling starting far away and approaching seemed to reliably catch her peripheral awareness and prevent her from being startled.

If you're near the person, and they still haven't noticed you, then quietly step away without being noticed. Then, when you're nearly a room's length away, call out their name, and re-approach the person again. Until that person is responsive, keep speaking and/or singing louder and louder. The softer sound, appearing to be farther away, is less likely to trigger a response of fearful surprise.

The problem is where your starting point for this is.

If you wait till you're right up behind somebody to talk to them, you're going to startle them. If you say something when you're on the other side of the room you're a lot less likely to do it.

Just start with a "Hi aunt Alice" when you first walk in the room. If she knows you're there it's a simple greeting that you were probably going to have to make anyway. If she doesn't know you're there it's a non-awkward way of letting her know.

If somebody is wearing headphones.. all bets are off and if they get startled that's on them.

Headphones are tricky, so I will tackle the non-headphones bit first.

I am often told that I could easily be a master assassin in my sleepers. I have scared everyone in my household multiple times. So what I usually do, when I know that someone might be distracted and need to get their attention is call their name from the other room as I walk in. This might be perceived as rude by some so it's not a 100% solution. Otherwise, knocking on the door or the door's frame is a good way to get their.

Now the headphones bit is hard. When I try to approach someone with headphones, I try first talking loudly. In a work environment for example, approaching someone with headphones on from the front (getting into their line of view) or messaging them (through skype for example) are ways to solve this issue.

Use an already non-surprising and available signaling system, such as a phone call or text to a mobile phone. If it's 70 year old Aunt Edna, then maybe even call the landline from your phone. The ring will get her attention in a non-threatening way. Or go outside and ring the doorbell.

Like most other answers, I agree that the solution is to create both time and distance enough for the person to notice you more gradually from farther away. My answer differs in the definition of the problem. The probable reason that many people are startled by you in the first place. I'll offer a simple way to avoid that, thus creating less need to use the often awkward or silly feeling solutions.

I believe the original poster made 2 errors in his assumptions.
One has already been addressed by other answers; "The starting point is the moment I stand behind them". Obviously you need to start sooner. The second error is that you assumed you are "quite Ninja-like in my movements". It is not the stealthiness of your movement that startles people, it is how close you were able to get before they noticed.

Everyone has an arbitrarily sized bubble of personal space where they can feel comfortable until the bubble is intruded upon by another. The size of that bubble grows when a person feels they are alone. I suspect that your personal bubble is frequently smaller than those you interact with. You probably do not notice in social settings because the cues are smaller than being startled, and people try not to offend you in the case where you become a "close talker".

I experienced this just yesterday when a stranger engaged me in conversation. I was quite happy to talk to this person and remember thinking "I really like this person, I'd like to talk to him at length about his experiences." Then he took one step closer while continuing to talk. Then all I could think was "How can I end this and get away from this person?" He did not talk or smell offensively, he was just too close. The change in distance was less than the span of my fingers, yet the change in comfort level was dramatic.

A similar affect happens when you approach an unaware person, however they do not have time to suppress their flight reaction. This manifests as being startled.

You are not doing anything wrong. There is just an incompatibility in the personal space requirements with some people you interact with. I think that if you can routinely(always) attempt to maintain a slightly larger distance from some people, you will find first that they are less frequently startled, and second, they may be more willing to engage with you for longer periods of time.

Try this first with people that you have already startled, then try it with people that seem cold or distant. You may find they begin to warm up to you.

The great thing is, trying this does not require any awkward affectations like jingling your keys or clearing your throat. It has no negative side affects, the worst thing that could happen is it might not work for some people.

It can even work in cases you wouldn't expect such as those wearing headphones. Because if you maintain a larger distance, and approach from the front whenever possible, you are more likely to be in their field of view and much less likely be required to tap them on the shoulder. If you ever do need to tap someone on the shoulder to get their attention because other methods have already failed, never do it from directly behind. First try to get a full arms length away so they can't hit you in the face if they are startled. Then try to maneuver to their front or side.

  • I'm not a close talker, but keep distance from other people (rather too much than not enough). They are startled even when I'm farther away. I don't agree with the underlying assumption, that this is simply about personal space. – Anne Daunted Oct 6 '17 at 17:18
  • That is fair. I didn't have any evidence to support my supposition. I took a shot that it could be the case, but it is not. Still, my answer might help someone else that finds this question. – slomobile Oct 6 '17 at 17:34

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