The Ladies Who Yawn

November 8, 2018 Updated: November 8, 2018

I have been a member of the male sex my entire life, actually longer, since my masculinity—such as it is—was determined when I first acquired a Y chromosome, a microscopic dust bunny-like creature, nine months before I was born.

Despite my disinterested point of view, I will readily admit that men are the grosser sex. Men don’t smell as good as women, and are more likely to scratch themselves in places where they shouldn’t, sometimes on national TV as is often the case with professional athletes. With the exception of Cary Grant, whose gentlemanly manner was as close to perfection as any man ever achieved, it’s hard to understand what women see in men at all.

The exception to this rule—I won’t say it proves anything—is yawning. Perhaps because men have so many other faults to make up for, they seem to realize that when they open their mouths involuntarily to public view the polite thing to do is to cover them. That’s what I was taught by my mother, and apparently somebody told the other men—except for the out-and-out louts—to do the same.

It has taken me a long time to formulate my feelings on this point, but after years of control-group testing, surreptitious observation, and late-night reveries fueled by red wine, my research points to one inescapable conclusion: women are less likely than men to cover their mouths when they yawn. 

I’ve come to believe that there’s a secret women’s handbook of manners floating around somewhere that says “Because we are the more delicate sex, and leave the room when we feel a giant taco burp coming up, we are allowed to yawn, uncovered, for great lengths of time in public. This is our ‘free space,’ like the middle square in bingo. Have fun with it!”

I’m aware of the fact that, according to both popular lore and scientific experiments, yawning is a social phenomenon. Approximately half of all adults are subject to “contagious yawning,” that is, once someone else yawns in their presence, they follow suit. Contagious yawning is a behavior that occurs in humans and chimpanzees as a response to hearing, seeing, or thinking about yawning. It is highly likely that you have felt a desire to yawn while reading this article, for example. I have that effect on people.

Since the population of the world is more or less evenly divided between the two sexes, it may just be that the male half is boring the female half with our talk of wild card teams, the opening of moose-hunting season, and exchange-traded mutual funds, and the weapons-grade tedium we induce penetrates women’s anti-yawn defense systems. The evidence for my belief that women are more social than men, on the other hand, is purely anecdotal. 

Over the better part of a decade as a hockey dad I watched men and women filter into cold skating rinks and, like an anthropologist observing great apes in the wild, recorded my observations. The women formed groups in which they exchanged compliments about each other’s hair and commiserated about the time they were wasting, while the men lined the rink in solitary fashion, each one looking out at his kid, calculating the odds of a scholarship that would allow him to avoid the high cost of college.

I have recently crossed something of a watershed in my research into sex-based yawning patterns. I have a walk of several hundred yards from my office to the train station, across a plaza where one can have an unobstructed view of a person coming from the opposite direction for a minute or more. Yesterday I saw a woman emerge from the subway, start to yawn, and maintain a full, open-mouth position for a count of 14.6 seconds. This is the etiquette counterpart to football’s “good hang-time,” the ability of a punter to kick a ball high in the air, giving his special team precious extra seconds to run downfield and pummel a speedy kick returner like a piñata at an 8-year-old’s birthday party.

Last week, as I was riding the subway, I sat opposite a young woman and her boyfriend/fiance/husband. They were on their way to the airport, apparently at the end of a vacation, looking at the pictures they had taken around Boston. The woman began to yawn at the Boylston Street stop and—I swear—didn’t stop or cover her mouth until the conductor pulled into Park Street, several blocks away. Park Street and Boylston Stations are the nation’s two oldest subway stations, built at the end of the 19th century, when ladies who felt a belch coming on were sequestered in an upstairs bedroom or sent to the seashore until it had passed out of their system.

One of the great breakthroughs of quantum physics, Werner Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle,” teaches us that the act of observation modifies the thing observed, so that absolutely precise measurements are impossible. I suppose it could be the case that women deliberately extend their yawns when they see men watching them, thinking “maybe if I show that creep my molars long enough he’ll stop staring at me.”

The other possibility—actually, it’s more like a certainty—is that the woman yawning her head off in public today was kept up the night before by a man snoring like a sawmill at the mouth of roaring river.

That’s our free space, and if you don’t like it, you can take your bingo card and go sleep on the couch.

Con Chapman is a Boston writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Boston Globe, among other publications. His biography of Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington’s alto saxophonist, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.