Among the most important milestones in a relationship isn’t when you first say “I love you.” And it’s not when you meet each other’s families or move in together. It’s when you start making your weird little noises. A horny grunt when you want your partner to snuggle you on the couch, an excited squawk when you see them after work and the faint groans when you’re hungover and need water — all of these are the signs that you’re really in it.
That’s why when 22-year-old Sevyn found a meme about such weird little noises on Tumblr back in early March, she related to it enough to post it on Twitter. “I have this habit of saying ‘mowww’ when something is cute or adorable,” she tells me. “Me and my ex would make these random animal noises with each other sometimes, like the way horses go ‘pbbbbbt’ with their lips.” In fact, in her past relationship, Sevyn recalls making all sorts of barnyard noises. “It’d be like an inside joke between us, and we’d send each other voice notes on iMessage making the noises,” she says.
For people who may feel uncomfortable using loaded words like “love” or pet names, these oinks and pbbbts might be especially important early on in romantic relationships when they’re getting comfortable and first opening up. “Noises are shared language, something you learn from each other, and maybe something you experienced together, taken from a movie or imitating a pet,” psychotherapist Tina Tessina explains. For instance, the author of Dr. Romance’s Guide to Finding Love Today has found that “humming tunelessly can be a sign of contentment.”
All those weird little noises also sure sound a whole lot like baby talk, says marriage and family therapist Omar Ruiz, who compares it to the way parents soothe their newborns. “It can be seen as cute or adorable, especially if the reason to do it is to connect with the other person in a way that expresses their desire or likeness for them,” Ruiz explains. The difference is that noises are a little less mortifying than baby talk, and easier to try while keeping a straight face. All these hums and beeps and pbbbts can bring couples closer “because it signifies a closer degree of connection.”
Of course, this assumes that your partner isn’t totally annoyed and turned off when you transform into a tiny, helpless kitty cat. But unless you’re dropping cartoonish “awoooogas” every time you see them, a weird noise falling flat won’t make or break the bond you share. It might just call for an explanation. “You need to be willing to discuss them or explain what they mean when your partner is confused or put off,” Tessina notes.
So if you’re using noises as a way to get around being vulnerable, the bad news is you’re still going to have to talk about what you’re trying to communicate. But if you can figure out how to understand each other, there may be many benefits in the bedroom, too, sexologist Carol Queen points out — particularly for couples who might want to talk dirty but don’t know where to start. “The thing about noises is that they seem pre-verbal, and thus, more natural and less filtered, though they can be just as performative as talking dirty,” Queen tells me.
Once specific noises become part of a couple’s routine, it “gives them an emotional power,” Queen explains, making them an important aspect of intimacy. In her book, Exhibitionism for the Shy, Queen found that sex noises specifically “can play a role for many people in expressing desire or being sexually overcome — which can be really, really hot. That is sexual communication, and if it has its limits in specificity, hopefully it warms you up to use your words.”
Lengthy howls and mini-gulps may not be your partner’s cup of tea, but like a good earworm, they’re bound to grow on them. Case in point: When the 31-year-old Jake started dating his girlfriend, around month two, he noticed “in the morning she sounded like a baby dinosaur. It wasn’t my favorite thing, but I got used to it.” Now, a little over a year into dating, Jake continues to be more of the strong, silent type, “but I know what all the noises mean, and it’s always a funny conversation when I stumble on a new one.”
All of which is to say, gibberish is very much one of the love languages.