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Sociability • Communication

Becoming More Interesting

For many years, without us necessarily realising, our overwhelming priority in company may simply be not to put a foot wrong. If others tell a joke, we’ll laugh. If someone shares a strong political opinion, we’ll nod in agreement. If we need the bathroom, we’ll try not to ask for it. We may – with luck – be called a very nice person.

What won’t occur to us – as we adjust our accent to match someone else’s and tell a person how interesting their hobby sounds – is to share the slightest bit of what is actually going on in our minds. For example, that we’ve recently been plotting how to seduce a member of a long-established couple, that we don’t subscribe to any of the political opinions we’re meant to profess, that we daydream about asking to be sexually humiliated by an authority figure, that we spend a long time up at night looking up the life of an ex-partner, that we’ve had an incestuous thought about a sibling, that we think a popular person in our social group is a phoney, that we see a therapist three times a week because we’re not very well, that we want a friend to fail at work and that we don’t give a damn about climate change and even sometimes wish the human race might come to an end in a huge war (largely to excuse our inability to achieve very much).

Émile Bernard, Breton Women in the Meadow, 1888

This is starting to get interesting. This, though not recommended by etiquette manuals, is alive. The reason we don’t go there or anywhere near there is because – without even realising it – we have always operated under the assumption that what we say cannot bear any trace of who we really are. 

It doesn’t take much to lend a child an impression that they aren’t wanted, that their antics are tedious, that they need to shut up and behave and that their essence is unacceptable and repulsive. And from that melancholy place, it’s a short step to an adulthood in which nothing that comes out of one’s mouth has any truth-value left in it whatsoever.

We don’t need to throw away every element of caution. There is naturally a role for a degree of editing and an eye on the right occasion. But we may far more regularly come to wonder not just ‘what should I say?’ but, more acutely and sincerely, ‘what do I actually feel?’

Being interesting has nothing to do with travelling to rare places, reading complicated books or holding down a prestigious position – and everything to do with succeeding at being a slightly less hidebound and more faithful correspondent of one’s authentic self. 

Everyone is privately going out of their minds from the compromise and the silence. Social reality is painfully far adrift from individual experience. Everyone is confusedly longing for someone to come along and say it a little more as it is. The laughter and warmth that result are explosions of naked relief that some of the shame can now be shed. Our revelations will not only lighten our spirits; they will function as supreme acts of generosity for others too, allowing them to feel a bit less constrained and less peculiar around their own sexuality, politics, longings, despair and grief. We’ll be invited back not so much because we are ‘interesting’ as because – without anyone necessarily entirely understanding why – we make people feel better.

True politeness has very little to do with manners; and much to do with having the courage to alleviate loneliness, our own and that of everyone around us.

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