On Yawning

Are you already yawning while reading this?

If you are speaking to someone — in a formal or informal setting — and they keep yawning in response, are you insulted that they are tired and not paying attention?  Or are you in some way complimented that someone is showing you the back of their throat?

For much of my life, I took a yawn from someone as an affront that I was somehow boring the point of my interest, and if a student dared to loudly yawn in class, that was of even more concern that I was losing the accrued interest of a topic I was divining to share.

Then I met a good, and ancient, friend, who happened to also be an excellent stage director — and professional theologian — who taught me my thinking was wrong.

A yawn is a compliment, he argued — a good thing — and you should work a room, and conversations, to get that open mouth staring back at you.

My friend went on to explain that a yawn is an indication that the body is relaxed and open and not tense. We want people to be just like that at all times — in a totally relaxed state — and a yawn helps them get there.

If we want to have a real conversation, or teach something, then a yawn is a receptive signal we should not ignore and must encourage.  Uptight people, clenched jaws, and the breath-holders, are not in a proper relaxed state for total compensation.

To avoid any tension from a yawner in class, or during a meeting, my friend always takes a moment, after the yawn, to explain why he values that state of relaxation, and he encourages everyone to yawn if they are so inclined.

The worst thing that can happen to a person is to stifle a yawn because that makes the body even more oxygen-deprived and tense.  Just allowing an “open yawning policy” relaxes everyone and even if they don’t yawn — though many involuntarily do anyway — the entire room becomes warmer and friendlier and more focused.

I have taken that lesson to heart over the years, and I, too, also encourage yawning, and even if I can’t point out the significance of the relaxation technique because of circumstance, I know if someone yawns, they are available and thoughtful and in a right state of mind — and that clear body clue can be important when it comes to low-level human communication.

I found myself repeatedly yawning just writing this article about yawning, so yes, yawns are contagious — even against the self — and even when it comes to just typing the word. My friend would be proud.

10 comments

  • I yawned just reading about yawns — now I’m feeling yawnier than Yanni! Thanks for the great read :)

  • Okay, maybe yawning is a compliment, but I just can’t stand watching and hearing someone gaping loudly without as much as covering it or turning away. Do I really need to see your tonsils and listen to you try to continue speaking through that yawn? No. Manners, please.

    • I agree! One should always be quiet while yawning and cover the mouths as well. I’m not interested in getting a visual inventory off all that dental work! SMILE!

      There’s a difference between yawns, too. Yawns around bedtime and waking up don’t really count — because the mind is not engaged yet and is trying to wake itself up. In the realm of the everyday, though, the yawn rule works pretty well for finding someone open and relaxed to new ideas, favors, and deep thinking.

  • David,

    your colleague’s theory is a fascinating one. I have a hard time, based on personal experience, in buying into it completely.

    Many moons ago, (38 I think), I spent a long tedious term, yawning and dozing off in a particularly boring history class. When he caught any of us yawning, the professor would slam his text book down very loudly and violently on the offender”s desk. Even the ensuing lecture about getting sufficient sleep and paying attention, was delivered in such a monotone’ fashion, that we found ourselves, collectively, stifling yawns.

    I am however, fairly certain, judging by your always interesting blog entries, that the yawns in your classroom are the signs of relaxed open minds. ;)

    Best wishes,

    ~Cliff

    • Yes, you make an excellent point. There’s a difference between a “relaxed yawn” and yawning that indicates a lack of sleep.

      I, too, would be upset if a bunch of sleepless slackers were ruining my class with obnoxious yawning. I’d ask them to leave and take a nap on their time and not mine. SMILE!

  • I like that idea – I shall take that on board :)

  • I think/hope it will – I will not get so ticked off when people yawn when I am telling tales or talking and I wont feel so guilty when I do the same !

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