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.