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Why We Find Some People Boring

... and how to avoid the label ourselves.

Key points

  • One historical study showed that people said to be boring were unconcerned by others, talked less, and shared very little of themselves.
  • Narcissists may be seen as boring because they make little to no effort to engage with another person's story.
  • Actively listening to others and focusing on the positive can lower the chances of being perceived as boring.

Drew Akerman makes millions of people go to sleep just with the sound of his own voice. His podcast, “Sleep With Me," intentionally rambles on with nonsensical conversations as a way to help those with insomnia fall asleep. (For example, in one episode, he interviews the Sydney Harbour Bridge.) He intentionally keeps his tone calm and even and ensures that whatever he’s talking about doesn’t make that much sense. To work—or, to cure people’s insomnia—he needs to fashion himself to be the most boring man in the world!

But what really makes us see someone else as boring?

While the past 30 years have seen a relative explosion in research exploring the feeling state of boredom and the individual tendency to feel that state often and intensely—the so-called boredom-prone—far less has been done to examine the ways in which we judge others to be boring. The adage that “only boring people get bored” hints at one possibility—perhaps what makes a situation boring also makes a person boring. Monotony, a lack of anything particularly interesting or challenging—these things capture boring circumstances. Maybe they apply to boring people too.

But is that all there is to it?

Boring conversations

One early study in the 1980s explored the issue by examining the contents of conversations. They first had people rate activities that they thought a boring person would typically engage in and came up with no fewer than nine dimensions. These ranged from being banal to being overly ingratiating, to being too serious or being too self-occupied. The researchers then had people rate recordings of boring conversations that drew from these nine boring dimensions. Results showed that boring people were thought to be unconcerned by others, talked less, and shared very little of themselves.

This study was based largely on analyzing the kinds of things we converse about and how others perceive those conversations, a point Zuckerman first touched on when developing his scale to measure sensation-seeking. The scale has a subcomponent measuring boredom susceptibility with questions such as “When you can predict almost everything a person will do and say, he or she must be a bore.” It seems boring people just aren’t fun to talk to.

Boring narcissists

There is some work showing that those who are prone to boredom also tend towards a particular kind of narcissism—what is referred to as covert narcissism. The overt narcissist brags about how wonderful they are, whereas the covert narcissist stews over the fact that, according to them, the world has failed to recognize their immense talents.

Regardless of which narcissism is at play, what is common is the self-focus and lack of concern for others. We may see narcissists as boring precisely because they make little to no effort to engage with our story.

A more recent study has delved more deeply into just what makes a boring person. Wijnand Van Tilburg, from the University of Essex, asked people to directly rate what constitutes a boring person. In the first two studies, people listed occupations, hobbies, and personal characteristics that they thought made up a pretty boring person. As the authors point out, many of the characteristics people came up with seem synonymous with the experience of boredom itself. Being a dull person resonates with boring circumstances feeling dull. A person who shows a lack of interest in others accords with our evaluations of boring situations lacking interest for us. So, the boring person may simply embody the boring experience. Other key aspects they found to be characteristic of the boring person touched on how we interact. Those with little or no sense of humour, no opinions of their own, or those who were bad conversationalists, were considered to be the most boring.

Boring occupations and hobbies

For occupations (and here we are all susceptible to the quick search to make sure our own job didn’t wind up on the list), it seemed that working with numbers was seen as most boring. Data analysts, people working in taxation or insurance, and the job many of us may have chosen for the number one spot, accountancy (which actually came in at number two) were the top picks for boring jobs.

(Luckily for us, science was low down on the list, closer to journalism and the performing arts.)

When it came to hobbies, people rated sleeping (hard to see how this could be considered a hobby!), watching TV, and religion as the most boring. Interestingly, collecting—something like David Morgan’s preoccupation with traffic cones—was far from the most boring-rated hobby, only just making it into the top 10 at number 8 on the list.

Personality traits of boring people

The truly interesting thing Van Tilburg and colleagues did next was to determine what consequences there might be for the boring person—how does the stereotype affect our interactions with them? It turned out that we rate boring people to be lacking both warmth and competence. Unsurprisingly, participants indicated that they would prefer to avoid such boring people and even indicated they would pay money to do so (committing to larger sums as the prospective time in the bore’s company increased).

Studies looking at the big-five personality traits have shown that the boredom-prone are less open to new experiences and are lower in extraversion. So, are we just skewing our evaluations of people towards the extravert? People with strong opinions, good conversation skills, a sense of humour, and interesting hobbies? Certainly, this tip list for how not to be boring could be reworked as “How to Be an Extravert." Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Speaking might agree and suggest that we look beyond the extravert’s traits for what constitutes "interesting."

How to avoid being boring

How can we avoid the dreaded label of being a bore?

First, actively listen to others. Nothing turns people off more than feeling like you don’t care about their story. Interaction is inherently about give-and-take. When we forget that and become engrossed in our own story, we risk becoming a little dull.

Second, seek the positive wherever possible. This isn’t to suggest that we all adopt a Pollyanna outlook on life. It’s important to share our troubles and woes, and lean on friends and family in tough times. But if that is all that we talk about, we risk being seen as overly negative and repetitive, harping on about the same old things.

Finally, keep an open mind. Being curious about the world around us leads to generally positive experiences. And beyond sparking our own novel interests, being open to new things signals to others that we might just be interested in some of the same things they are.

No one wants to be thought of as boring. We cast a kind of moral judgment on those we deem uninteresting. But with a little effort to focus on how we engage with the world and those around us, we can open our minds and ears (to listen to others more effectively), and hopefully become a little more engaged and engaging.

Facebook image: Diego Cervo/Shutterstock

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