11 Jul 2023

What a yawn

“To yawn in the presence of others, to lounge, to put your feet on a chair, to stand with your back to the fire, to take the most comfortable seat in the room, to do anything which shows indifference, selfishness, or disrespect, is unequivocally vulgar and inadmissible.”

Routledge’s Manual of Etiquette, 1860

Scientists are still uncertain about why we yawn. They have identified many triggers that cause yawning, including fatigue, boredom, anxiety, hunger. But the physiological purpose of this universal habit remains enigmatic. Many scientists believe that yawning is a brain cooling mechanism, and its function, which is most apparent when we’re in situations that lack emotional stimulation, is to promote arousal and alertness. Everyone agrees that yawning is highly contagious, rippling through a group and even affecting empathetic dogs. In fact, yawning is associated with empathy: when humans watch other people yawn, brain areas known to be involved in social function are activated. 

Yawning is considered rude in most circumstances. As we can see from the above quote, it was viewed as the height of bad manners during the Victorian era, and many of these attitudes still prevail today. While we no longer dismiss yawning as “vulgar”, it is seen as rude and disrespectful because it implies that the yawner is bored and is making no attempt to conceal the fact. 

Of course, this is not necessarily the case and sometimes overwhelming fatigue can cause a bout of yawning. If that is the case, and you feel you are about to be overwhelmed by a yawning attack, you might do well to signal the fact verbally. Say something like “I do apologise, but I didn’t get very much sleep last night and I can’t stop yawning.” If you do this, you will be indicating to the people you are with that you’re not yawning because you have been overcome by boredom. However, it is best not to inflict your fatigue on other people – if you’re too tired to socialise without yawning, you should be in bed.

If you want to stifle a yawn, you should cover your mouth with your hand and apologise. It is better to acknowledge the yawn politely (“Excuse me”), as it is extremely difficult to conceal a yawn, especially if it is accompanied by sound effects and watering eyes. If you feel a yawn is coming on, try taking deep, slow breaths and controlling your breathing. If you’re in a situation where you’re being closely scrutinised, taking a sip of water will help to disguise your yawn.

Be aware that uninhibited yawning, which many people feel they can safely indulge in on the phone, is audible because it distorts the sound of the voice and can be very off-putting. If you communicate frequently through video messaging or FaceTime, remember that yawns are particularly incriminating on a screen, where other people are focused on your facial expression and there is nowhere to hide.

If you are mid-conversational flow and you see people around you yawning, take note. If more than one person is yawning, then it is likely that you are being boring, or perhaps indulging in a monologue, which is essentially depriving your audience of the stimulus of participating in the conversation, which would probably solve the yawning problem. The reaction isn’t very polite but it’s telling you something, and you’d do well to change the subject or ask some questions and re-focus the conversation.

If you’re hosting, and you see your guests yawning, they might well be ready for departure or bed. You should also be alert to the sight of people stifling their yawns, a clear indication that they’d like the evening’s socialising to end but are too polite to make the first move. If they’re staying overnight, acknowledge that it’s getting late, and bring the evening to a close. If they’re going home, you will need to wait for your guests to make moves to depart – you might speed them on their way if you yawn yourself (which you very likely will, as yawning is infectious). If all else fails you can always drop heavy hints by beginning to subtly start clearing away glasses and plates (avoid loud clattering in the kitchen), a tried and tested signal that it’s time for bed.


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