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Sociability • Social Virtues
How To Tell When You Are Being A Bore
Some of the reason why we end up being inadvertently rude to people is that they are so polite with us, a politeness which gives us precious little indication of the ways in which we may be gravely offending, inconveniencing or boring them.
It can at points be hard to tell whether what we are saying is really of any interest to those we are addressing. Few people – other than our partner in a bad mood or our adolescent child – will ever directly cut us short and announce that they find us dull. It is as a result all too easy to develop an impression of our own compelling nature. If we were to ask our interlocutor Am I boring you?, we can be certain that the one answer we would never receive is: Well, since you ask, yes you are rather. If we choose to wait until people fall asleep while we’re recounting an anecdote or check their phone as we get to the punchline of our joke, it will be too late. Our reputation as a windbag will long ago have been sealed.
Fortunately, most of what people need to tell us does not have to be directly stated; the evolution of a civilisation can be measured by the scope of its dictionary of unsaid signals. The clue to another’s interest lies not in their overt declarations but in their degree of responsiveness to our words. We can gauge interest by studying how closely and logically another’s questions follow on from our statements; how fast their replies come; how invested they seem in their emphases; whether their eyes meet ours when we stress a point; and the degree of elasticity and benevolence in their smile. To a trained observer, an urgent cry – ‘I need to go to bed now’ – can be communicated by nothing more brutal or direct than a gaze at the overhead smoke alarm that is held a fraction too long or a ‘That’s wonderful’ that lacks a minute but critical dose of wonder.
It is mostly easy enough to note the cues; when we ignore them, it isn’t that we aren’t receiving them, but that we are somehow opting not to register them – and we are not doing so for a poignant reason: because we cannot bear to imagine that we might be boring, because the idea of not belonging sufficiently deeply in another’s life is untenable; because we are unreconciled to the fundamental loneliness of existence and the tragic disjuncture between what we want from others and what they may be prepared to provide. We have grown deaf from the rigidity of our need not from any failure of sensitivity.
Somewhere the idea of not pleasing someone conversationally has turned from a risk into a catastrophe that must be manically warded off. We become insistent and wilfully oblivious; we give up seeking to delight and settle instead on the more modest hope of not being actively thrown out. The insult to our self-love that we read into another’s bored reaction feels too great, and our resources to deal with it too slim for us to take in the meaning of the long pauses and wandering eyes. We overlook the cues because what they indicate to our unconscious minds isn’t the relatively innocuous thought that the other wants to go to bed; they become embroiled in a deeper story about our self-worth: they become indicators that we are fundamentally displeasing, that we deserve our isolation, that we are hateful wretches.
The best guarantee of not boring others is – therefore – the development of an internal robustness that can allow us to withstand the thought of our tedious aspects. The interesting person can acknowledge that losing someone’s attention is a setback not a sign of damnation.
To develop a more benevolent picture of what it means occasionally to bore, it can help to study the responses of parents to their small children, for there are no better examples of the easy coexistence of boredom with love. To a parent, their four-year-old child will be at once the most loveable creature they have ever met – and, by a long way, especially in their conversation, the most tedious. Even outside of parenthood, we are all endowed with surprisingly rich capacities to love someone and at the same time to find them extremely wearing. It does not, as the bore mistakenly ends up thinking, need to be a choice between love or boredom.
To skirt the danger of being a full-blown bore, we should foster the inner courage to imagine that we might sometimes, without anything too awful being meant by this, be such a thing.