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Getting Along by Lawrence J. Cohen - A bi-weekly column in The Boston Globe

1/30/2003 - When companion yawns, it's (probably) no reflection on you

For some reason, yawns have a bad reputation. People feel offended when you yawn in their company, and they may ask pointedly if they are boring you. Yawning, however, is a natural way that our bodies release tension. We yawn as we're falling asleep, but we also yawn as a way of staying alert, so perhaps it should be considered a sign of respect, not disrespect.

Some scientists have observed that athletes tend to yawn right before a competition, performers yawn before a performance, and students yawn just about all the time - not just when they are bored, but to focus their minds before an exam. I've noticed that people yawn a lot when they are relating the details of an old injury or illness - as though their bodies are recovering from the physical trauma by yawning at the same time that their minds are recovering from the emotional upset by telling the story.

In fact, you may find yourself yawning right now just from reading about yawns. And I know you couldn't possibly be bored! Yawning is very contagious, though no one understands why. Maybe we all have unyawned yawns inside of us, yearning to breathe free. Watching someone else yawn, or even thinking about yawns, triggers our brains to let one out ourselves.

Sometimes, during a long meeting or class, when everyone is struggling to stay focused, I will suggest a yawn-a-thon, which means that everyone pretends to yawn until very shortly we are all yawning for real. This gets people laughing and yawning at the same time, and, amazingly, everyone is more alert and attentive afterward.

Still, there seems to be a conspiracy against yawners. I suppose it is just one more natural phenomenon that some people just don't like to see, like the antiperspirant ad, ''Never let them see you sweat.'' If sweating is somehow a sign of weakness, then yawning is a sign of impoliteness. Thank heavens there isn't a spray that stops people from yawning!

So go ahead and yawn, don't stifle it, I won't be offended.

Yawns are usually considered a reaction to fatigue or boredom. We know what fatigue is, and we don't usually blame anyone for being tired. But we do get offended when someone finds us boring. But what is boredom, anyway?

Boredom is kind of a vague concept, and means different things to different people. Some people seek out thrills and excitement or even aggression when they are bored, while others get anxious and emotionally unstable, and still others crawl under the covers. Some people enjoy being bored, saying that it stimulates creativity and inner reflection to not have constant entertainment.

My mother-in-law taught my daughter this Robert Louis Stevenson poem: The world is so full of a number of things/I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.

But most of us don't really take in all those interesting things around us - we get bored instead. I know some people who don't mind standing in long lines, because they never get bored. They talk to people, look around, think about interesting stuff. As opposed to people like me, who stare blankly at the wall and check our watches every 30 seconds and feel excruciatingly bored.

When children say, `I'm bored,` I think it often really means, `I'm lonely,` and I think the same is true for adults as well. I had a client once who hated going to parties, always saying they were boring. After more exploration, it turned out that he wasn't actually bored, he was anxious - worried that no one would talk to him or like him, nervous that people could tell how uncomfortable and awkward and shy he felt, fearful about saying the wrong thing. He was so anxious about the social situation that he couldn't connect with the people around him, which would have cured his loneliness and boredom. I also think that my client had a hard time listening to other people, because he felt so shy about chiming in with his own stories and opinions.

As Ambrose Bierce said in his Devil's Dictionary, a bore is ''A person who talks when you wish him to listen.''


Larry Cohen
phone: 617-713-0568

email: larjack@playfulparenting.com

Larry Cohen
1680A Beacon Street | Brookline, MA 02445 | Tel/Fax: 617-713-0568

email: larjack@playfulparenting.com