Science tells us that the act of burping is a natural function of the human body. Humans need to expel excess air somehow, yet when we hear a burp, big or small, it’s hard not to laugh, or make a disapproving face. But what is it about burping that excites such emotion? Perhaps it’s better to deal first with the “why” of burping…
“Primarily it’s a source of relief and release of gas from just normal actions that occur in the body. Essentially when we take in too much air, and we need to release that air the way to get rid of it is thru burping,” said Barbara Moss of Indiana University’s Health and Wellness Department.
Jim Strobel, a board certified gastroenterologist who works in Bloomington, says there are other causes, too.
“In some cases it’s not so much a medical problem as it is maybe anxiety or other things that are causing patients to belch more than average. Most gas is swallowed and so if people are anxious or have other habits that make them swallow more air than usual then they will belch more,” he said.
And so popular culture sees fit to poke fun at the most gaseous among us. But though burping is a source of comedy for some, Strobel said in extreme cases some people burp uncontrollably…and may not know how to stop.
“I’ve seen patients who will come in and will talk and belch audibly, loudly multiple times and what you find if you watch them is that they are unconsciously swallowing air,” he said. “They will gulp and force air down. So we show them that they are doing that and teach them to just quit swallowing the air, either sucking in air or swallowing it. And with time they can be taught to belch so much and not swallow so much air.”
So since all humans swallow air at some point, then we all must burp, right? Wrong.
Hanna Lohmeyer and Cody Foster have been together for four years, during which time Hanna has never seen her boyfriend burp.
“Cody actually cannot burp out loud. When he burps its just a noise that happens in his chest and in this throat. So Cody has never burped in front of me before, but I am very comfortable burping in front of him and have been for quite some time now,” Lohmeyer said.
But some cultures do not consider burping funny and find the act inappropriate.
“There are a lot of things that people are not very sensitive of culture. Especially, I saw a few people in public and they were farting, which in Afghanistan is a big deal,” said Zalmai Yawar, who hails from Kabul. “People do not usually do that, but I think the same is true for burping. In afghan culture people are not burping because it is considered impolite and in some cases extremely rude. Especially if you are sitting with people who are eating food, so it kind of grosses them out so people try to avoid that.”
The one constant may be a sense of awkwardness in terms of the appropriate way to respond to a burp.
“I think that whenever something has a long history of being unacceptable, there’s a certain sort of tension around it,” said Indiana University Public Health graduate student Maria Roditis. “So when people do it, it maybe makes you embarrassed or feels outrageous. And if you’ve ever done something embarrassing and your immediate reaction is to laugh, I think that’s part of it.”
Somewhere between repulsive and funny is the act of burping. What may be most awkward about it is that, like a number of other involuntary human actions, scientists still don’t know much about why we burp instead of dissolving the ingested gas or expelling it other ways. Researchers, like their patients afflicted with a chronic condition, are left only to excuse themselves and apologize.