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Sociability • Social Virtues
How Not to Be Boring
One of our great fears – which haunts us when we go into the world and socialise with others – is that we may, in our hearts, be really rather boring.
But the good news, and a fundamental truth too, is that no one is ever truly boring. They are only in danger of coming across as such when they either fail to understand their deeper selves or don’t dare (or know how) to communicate them to others.
That there is simply no such thing as an inherently boring person or thing is one of the great lessons of art. Many of the most satisfying art works don’t feature exalted or rare elements; they are about the ordinary looked at in a special way, with unusual sincerity and openness to unvarnished experience. Take, for example, some grasses painted by the Danish artist Christen Købke in a suburb of Copenhagen in 1833. Outwardly, the scene is utterly unremarkable and could initially appear to be deeply unpromising material for a painting, and yet – like any great artist -Købke has known how to interrogate his own perceptions in a fresh, unclouded underivative manner and translated them accurately into his medium, weaving a small masterpiece out of the thread of everyday life.
And just as there is no such thing as a boring riverbank, tree or dandelion, so too there can be no such thing as an inherently boring person. The human animal witnessed in its essence, with honesty and without artifice, is always interesting. When we call a person boring, we are just pointing to someone who has not had the courage or concentration to tell us what it is like to be them. By contrast, we invariably prove compelling when we succeed in saying how and what we truly desire, envy, regret, mourn and dream. Anyone who faithfully recuperates the real data on what it is like to exist is guaranteed to have material with which to captivate others. The interesting person isn’t someone to whom obviously and outwardly interesting things have happened, someone who has travelled the world, met important dignitaries or been present at large geo-political events. Nor is it someone who speaks in learned terms about the weighty themes of culture, history or science. They are someone who has grown into an attentive, self-aware listener and a reliable honest correspondent of the tremors of their own mind and heart, and who can thereby give us faithful accounts of the pathos, drama and strangeness of being alive.
What, then, are some of the elements that get in the way of us being as interesting as we in fact are?
Firstly, and most crucially, we bore when we lose faith that it really could be our feelings that would stand the best chance of interesting others. Out of modesty, and habit, we push some of our most interesting perceptions to one side in order to follow respectable but dead conventions of what might impress. When we tell anecdotes, we throw the emphasis on the outward details – who was there, when we went, what the temperature was like – rather than maintaining our nerve to report on the layer of feelings beneath the facts; the moment of guilt, the sudden sexual attraction, the humiliating sulk, the career crisis, the strange euphoria at 3 a.m.
Our neglect of our native feelings isn’t just an oversight; it can be a deliberate strategy to keep our minds away from realisations that threaten our ideas of dignity and normality. We babble inconsequentially to the world because we lack the nerve to look more closely and unflinchingly within.
It feels significant that most five year olds are far less boring than most 45 year olds. What makes these children gripping is not so much that they have more interesting feelings than anyone else (far from it), but that they are especially uncensored correspondents of these feelings. Their inexperience of the world means they are still instinctively loyal to themselves; and so they will candidly tell us what they really think about granny and their little brother, what their plans for reforming the planet are and what they believe everyone should do with their bogeys. We are rendered boring not by nature so much as by a fateful will – that begins its malevolent reign over us in adolescence – to appear normal.
Yet, even when we are honest about our feelings, we may still prove boring because we don’t know them as well as we should, and so get stuck at the level of insisting on an emotion rather than explaining it. We’ll assert – with ever greater emphasis – that a situation was extremely ‘exciting’, ‘awful’ or ‘beautiful’ but not be able to provide those around us with any of the sort of related details and examples that would help them viscerally understand why. We can end up boring not so much because we don’t want to share our lives as because we don’t yet know them well enough to do so.
Fortunately, the gift of being interesting is neither exclusive nor reliant on exceptional talent; it requires only direction, honesty and focus. The person we call interesting is in essence someone alive to what we all deeply want from social intercourse: which is an uncensored glimpse of what the brief waking dream called life looks like through the eyes of another person and reassurance that we are not entirely alone with all that feels most bewildering, peculiar and intense within us.