Monday, October 01, 2007

In Defense of the Yawn

Okay, I've got something near and dear to my heart to talk about at the moment. It's with the idea that yawning, a natural process, is somehow disrespectful. I was out on Long Island this weekend, for a bar mitzvah. My Grandma and my Dad had flown in from Arizona, and in the off-moments, back at the hotel, when I would yawn my Grandma would snap at me "Cover your mouth!". There isn't anything really new there: my Grandma has been chastising me for that for...decades. And I'm sure many of those reading this have, in one way or other, experienced the same thing from parents or others.

But I'm wondering why it is that when a person sneezes, sending air out of their nose - and sometimes mucus out of their mouth - at hundreds of miles an hour, they get a "God bless you!", but when a person yawns - committing a silent, harmless act - they get yelled at. Don't throw science or biology at me - this is a cultural thing. A societal quirk. I know why we say "God bless you." But why isn't there some similar expression of concern, or encouragement, after a yawn?

I mean, think about it - how many people do you know who have gotten sick from someone else's yawn? I don't doubt that it can happen - germs can escape, and it's a bit more complicated than just "air going in and out in a weird way" I'm willing to bet you, though, that a sneeze spreads germs in a far more effective spray - erm, way - than an intake of air scientists are still hard-pressed to discover a definitive reason for (is it to cool the brain?, provide oxygen to a tired brain? God only knows - 'cause doctors...don't).

Yeah, I know - little droplets of saliva can go out of your mouth during a yawn. Those little droplets can get on other people. But did you mean to do it? I doubt it. It is a reason to cover your mouth if you're concerned about getting your mouthy fluids on others by accident, but the failure to do so - especially when you're in a hotel lobby with no one walking by - should not be construed as you being disrespectful, deliberately or otherwise.

Have you ever seen those National Geographic, Discovery Channel or Animal Planet documentaries filmed in Africa, featuring lions? When I see a lion yawn, either on TV or at a zoo, I don't see any of the lionesses in the pride chastising him, telling him to cover his mouth with his paw. I happen to think that, in general, when a normal house cat (wait, is there such a thing as a "normal" house cat?) yawns it seems incredibly relaxing to the feline. And, to my knowledge, no kitten has ever been denied a suckle from her mommy cat's nipples for yawning in the presence of other cats - or humans.

Personally, I know that yawning on an airplane helps to clear my ears if they're plugged - that's a good. I know that, after a yawn or two, I can be more alert not just toward another person, but in general - that's a good. Yawning, while someone else is talking, is not necessarily a bad thing - it identifies you as tired, but in no way does it or should it imply that the talker is putting you to sleep. And since yawning is a natural process - everyone does it, at one time or another - it is hardly a sign of disrespect. It isn't as if humans only yawn when we're around others. We do it when we're alone, too. Should I be yelling at myself, for not covering my mouth when yawning and alone?

Hell no! And why should I apologize for being tired, or make excuses for a process I don't understand yet know is, somehow, beneficial? Does an infant deserve a slap when she yawns in her bassinet as her parents look at her? To quote the great Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone, "I don't think so." We tend to think of it, I think, as pretty cute, actually. And since I mentioned sneezing earlier, why should a person who sneezes - who has allergies, who doesn't go out of his way to sneeze - feel they need to say "Excuse me!" after a sneeze? It's not often someone walks up to another person just to purposely sneeze in front of them.

This self-flagellation thing about natural processes is unbecoming an enlightened, modern civilization, or even a Third World, developing civilization. Take farts, for example - I've mentioned before, in this blog, that it is estimated that some 25% of methane gas emissions contributing to global warming come from cows. But we're not killing cows because they're ruining the planet. We're killing them, usually, because we're members of PETA - "People Eating Tasty Animals" (gotta love those Facebook causes). I wonder, truly wonder, how human farts affect modern global warming. That, my friends, is a discussion for another day.

We make fun of each other when we fart - and farts do sound funny. The principle of "whoever smelt it dealt it" is still accepted in my mind as, in some sense, valid (especially when someone else "accuses" me of the "silent but deadly" act). Again, though, farting is a natural process. It's one that smells bad, for sure it is, but unless you're in Syria and you're farts are being captured, with the gases being weaponized and turned into chemical or biological weapons to be used against Israel, farting doesn't make you a bad personal. It makes you an animal, whether you're inclined to agree or disagree with Charles Darwin. Ever smell a dog fart? It's no more pleasant than a human's.

But back to my point - if I haven't lost too many people due to the last two paragraphs. This is about yawning. I'm not going to apologize for the yawn I just experienced while typing this - I doubt my computer was offended by the act. If I yawn in front of others, and fail to cover my mouth while doing so, and get "yelled" at for doing so, I'll refuse to feel ashamed. If I cover my mouth, it will be because I don't want to be reamed out for allowing my human body to do its own thing, naturally.

And, maybe, it will be because I can be selective about who gets to share in my saliva. Pretty girls - them I'm pretty open to sharing my saliva with. That about covers it.

And who knows? If I'm criticized for failing to cover my mouth during a yawn, I may just end up pointing out that my "forgetfulness" could, in fact, be a very natural omission. How, you ask? Easy. One would think that if humans were meant to cover their mouths for each and every yawn, God in His wisdom would have fashioned human beings' bodies in such a way that hands going to our mouths during a yawn would be as involuntary, as automatic an event, as natural an occurrence as yawning itself is.

In other words, if I yawn and forget to cover my mouth - I don't mean no disrespect, y'all, y'hear?


Anonymous said... is only about should cover one's mouth when sneezing, belching and yes is cultural and it is all about manners...the lion analogy does not fly nor does the God Bless for the sneeze...your Grandmother like others of the older generations such as myself merely find wanton yawning, sneezing, belching and yes farting with abandonment as rude. One cannot nor should one surpress these functions...they are necessary and when in the privacy of one's own physical space...I say let it fly...but there are the rules of nicety in company that a mature person will adhere to so cover your mouth when in the company of the older less enlightnened of us..your Grandmother and the rest of the "nags" such as myself are only responding to our cultural bias of what civilized behavior should entail. If you must rage against such restrictions I would suggest picking something a little more important...I meant to start off this comment as a warning against elevating something trivial to the level of something worth writing about...however, I guess it is more important than I originally thought as my response is way to lengthy to be "trivial"...Love you Montie...sorry I missed seeing you this weekend...yawning and all!

Jeremy said...

For anyone wondering in what spirit this entry was written, please see my blog entry diatribe against spoon abuse, "Teaching Tabletop Tolerance", dated September 19, 2006.

The Author

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