Why professors might be yawning and checking their cell phones


This question landed in my Quora inbox:

In the past, I met some professors to talk about my research. When I explained my findings, some started heavily yawning and keep looking at their cell phones. Why do professors yawn when they have to listen?

Let’s start with the least controversial observation:

When people are tired, they sometimes yawn.

Abductive inference suggests the hypothesis that those professors are tired.  This would be pretty credible: professors generally work very long hours, and if you ran into them in the kind of context where one talks to lots of professors about one’s research–that is to say, at a conference–then they probably travelled to get there, and are jet-lagged on top of their usual exhaustion.  Of course, abductive inference is weaker than deductive inference–people yawn for lots of reasons, including boredom and uncomfortableness–and even inductive inference, so I won’t belabor this point beyond mentioning that we have no data for inductive inference (“some” is not really data, as such) and no premises for deductive inference.

Let’s move onto another observation–not as uncontroversial as “people sometimes yawn when they are tired,” but still pretty accurate:

People sometimes receive texts that are super-important to them.  Maybe their kid is sick, or their spouse just had an automobile accident.  They might have just gotten laid off, and be needing an appointment with their Human Resources office to find out about unemployment insurance, health insurance, etc.  You might not care whether their spouse or child lives or dies; you might not care whether or not they can feed their family; but, it’s not very fair of you to expect THEM not to care.

I wasn’t able to find any indication in your question regarding whether or not you have evidence to share with us regarding the topics and contents of those texts.  I certainly don’t have any.  Do you?

Why do professors yawn when they have to listen?

Actually, nobody has to listen.  Not that I’m aware of, at any rate.  Most people will, though.  But, here’s a caveat: many researchers get bored very quickly by people who are not saying interesting things to them.  You need to grab their interest right away, or you will probably lose it; the higher up the food chain the researcher is, the quicker you are likely to lose their interest if you are boring them.  (Thanks to KJ for this observation–it made me be really careful about preparing to run into Famous Scientists, and it turns out that if you’re ready to interest Famous Scientists, you are ready to interest anybody.  Not that I’m claiming to be able to interest anybody, mind you.  (Catch the ambiguity?))

When I explained my findings, some started heavily yawning and keep looking at their cell phones.

So far, your question has not given the reader the ammunition to do any kind of inference but abductive, and as I said, that’s the weakest kind.  But, you may be onto something here.

Here’s the thing about findings:

  • They’re usually not nearly as interesting as the question.  Either they’re not surprising, or they don’t actually answer the question one way or the other, or they’re not convincing–maybe your experimental design was bad, maybe you didn’t have a large enough sample, etc.  A good question, though–a good question will grab people’s attention.
  • If you have to explain your findings, there might be a problem.  Here are the most likely things that I can say about any of my findings, personally:
    • They’re clear enough that anyone in my field could interpret them, so they don’t need to be explained to people in my field
    • They’re so unclear that I can’t even interpret them MYSELF, in which case I am not going to try to explain them to ANYBODY–I am going to ask THEM to explain my findings to ME.

So, there are a number of reasons that professors might yawn and/or check their cell phones while you’re explaining your findings to them.

  1. They’re tired
  2. There are urgent things going on in their lives
  3. They are jerks
  4. You bored them

My advice: consider option #4 carefully, and if you see a way to improve your interactions with people when you talk with (note that I did not say to) them about your research, then do so.  Then: assume that (1) and (2) are the case.  We should always consider the possibility that we need to do a better job, but if we need an explanation for someone else’s behavior, it’s best to be charitable both to them–and to ourselves.  Then: go back and try again!  Good luck with your research. #Iamatiredhungrycrankyprofessorwhoneedstoeatdinnerandthenreviewthreemorepapers


3 thoughts on “Why professors might be yawning and checking their cell phones”

  1. I know managers C-level and one level below (and those a few more levels below who believe they gain in prestige if the mimick the higher levels) who will only be susceptible to elevator pitches. Wonderful arguments, chains of deduction and plenty of references to other works won’t convince. Millenials (and those who believe to be in an important position) are known to be impatient. They want an opera in 5 minutes, condensed to the highlights. They want a story in half a page, no more they are willing to read.

    Elevator pitches have emerged as this condensed form, and I can even see a huge advantage in them. If you can’t pinpoint your message, if you need 50 pages of Powerpoint to make your point, something is wrong – either about your understanding of the topic, or about your interpretation of the target audience.

    So, next time you try to convince your professor of something, do a rocking elevator pitch that will make them hungry, thirsty and longing for more. Show them the paradise, but take this vision away just in the moment they start enjoying it. This is when you have their attention, when they cling to your lips, wanting more of that sweet stuff that appeals to their senses. Drive them crazy with temptation and the glimpse of the impossible. Oh, Sheherazade would have been proud of you 🙂

    Coming back to your hypotheses about what is going on with these professors… well, consider it from this angle: they have to deal with so many people normal – terrifying normal people – those who try to comply with everything and who want to fit into any pattern of normality you’ve given them. Now, try to be different – dare say what others not even think of – revolution! That’s what will draw the attention of your professors – on the brink of madness, but not yet quite at the end of that short plank. Mastering the art of leaning out of that window as much as possibly, but not yet falling off. The kind of stuff they think they may not fully understand, but can use to show off to their peers. Yep. That’s the stuff good research assistants and scientific staff are made of.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I sometimes worry that my attention span is not what it used to be, in truth! And I’m certainly no millennial, nor am I a C-level manager. I blame my cell phone–seems safe to do so these days, plus I think it might actually be true…


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