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