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Sociability • Social Virtues

The Boring Person

One of the most interesting things about certain people is why they are so boring. They may have the best of intentions, they may be on paper – and in their jobs – very clever, they may be hugely kind, and yet if we can bear to be honest, we struggle to stay awake in their company.

This can be a hard realisation; after all, the bore may be our parent or our child, our boss or a very dear friend from school whom we’ve invited out for a long meal. We may prefer to blame ourselves rather than acknowledge that the problem lies squarely in the other.

René Magritte, Landscape of Baucis, 1966

So what turns someone into a bore? A useful law of psychology goes like this. A person becomes very boring indeed whenever they speak about one thing when they should really be speaking about another. The thing that they happen to be speaking about at great length might – in theory – be very erudite and prestigious. It could be about the Second Punic War or how molecules diffuse in a vacuum or the prospects for the Indonesian economy in the next eight months, but if they keep discussing these glorious subjects when there is – in fact – something else that they are in flight from in themselves, then the net result for those around them will be an overwhelming desire not to listen to anything they are saying. An ‘interesting’ subject can only ever be so if it isn’t simultaneously an evasion.

What then might the boring person be running away from? The topic might be very far from the one they are discussing. Not French art in the 19th century, but how extremely disappointed they are with the course of their career. Not political strife in parliament but their regret at the break up a relationship eight years before.

The gabbler uses language not to speak, piles of words are deployed in order to put a great distance between themselves and a few words in particular. They end up compelled to explain the whole of Sophocles or the entire mechanism of the Bolivian exchange rate or of Switzerland’s tactics in the World Cup in order that they might fail to mourn how they brought up their child or performed at work.

The boring person isn’t really boring; they are in manic flight from what is profoundly and agonisingly interesting in themselves.

We should as listeners get better at registering when we are bored and – on a few occasions – would be able to say: ‘This is clearly a very interesting area but I wonder if there’s something else, somewhere in you, that you might really need to talk about at this point?’ And rather than this feeling like an insult, boring speakers would acknowledge that their friend across the table was someone they had lacked for far too long: someone who could bear the sad and tragic parts of them, and longed for a chance to help them re-encounter their true selves.

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