In a movie I love, a quirky documentary called Sherman's March, the documentary maker’s former high school teacher tells him, “As people get older, they get more like themselves. And you’re getting more boring.” I’ve never forgotten that.
Like most people, probably, I have several pet subjects that I love to talk about – subjects that are sometimes interesting to other people, and sometimes not. Don’t get me started on happiness, or the screening procedures in airports and buildings, or children’s literature, or Winston Churchill, unless you really want to talk about it. (I do manage to be very disciplined about not talking about my children too much, except with grandparents.)
I made a list of signs to look for, as indicators that I might be boring someone. Just because a person isn’t actually walking away or changing the subject doesn’t mean that that person is genuinely engaged in a conversation. One challenge is that the more socially adept a person is, the better he or she is at hiding boredom. It’s a rare person, however, who can truly look fascinated while stifling a yawn.
Here are the factors I watch, when trying to figure out if I’m connecting with someone. These are utterly unscientific – I’m sure someone has made a proper study of this, but these are just my observations (mostly from noting how I behave when I’m bored and trying to hide it):
1. Repeated, perfunctory responses. A person who says, “Oh really? Oh really? That’s interesting. Oh really?” is probably not too engaged. Or a person who keeps saying, "That's hilarious."
2. Simple questions. People who are bored ask simple questions. “When did you move?” “Where did you go?” People who are interested ask more complicated questions that show curiosity, not mere politeness.
3. Interruption. Although it sounds rude, interruption is actually a good sign, I think. It means a person is bursting to say something, and that shows interest.
4. Request for clarification. A person who is sincerely interested in what you’re saying will need you to elaborate or to explain. “What does that term mean?” “When exactly did that happen?” “Back up and tell me what happened first” are the kinds of responses that show that someone is trying closely to follow what you’re saying.
5. Imbalance of talking time. I suspect that many people fondly suppose that they usually do 80 percent of the talking in a conversation because people find them fascinating. Sometimes, it’s true, a discussion involves a huge download of information desired by the listener; that’s a very satisfying kind of conversation. In general, though, people who are interested in a subject have things to say themselves; they want to add their own opinions, information, and experiences. If they aren’t doing that, they probably just want the conversation to end faster.
6. Body position. People with a good connection generally turn fully to face each other. A person who is partially turned away isn’t fully embracing the conversation. I pay special attention to body position when I'm in a meeting and trying to show (or feign) interest: I sit forward in my chair, instead of lounging back, and keep my attention obviously focused on whoever is speaking, instead of looking down at papers, gazing into space, or checking my phone.
Along the same lines, if you’re a speaker trying to figure out if an audience is interested in what you’re saying, consider:
7. Audience posture. Back in 1885, Sir Francis Galton wrote a paper in 1885 called “The Measurement of Fidget.” He determined that people slouch and lean when bored, so a speaker can measure the boredom of an audience by seeing how far from vertically upright they are. Also, attentive people fidget less; bored people fidget more. An audience that’s upright and still is interested, while an audience that’s horizontal and squirmy is bored.
I often remind myself of La Rochefoucauld’s observation, “We are always bored by those whom we bore.” Perhaps unfortunately, I don't believe it's always true, but it's often true: If I’m bored, there’s a good chance the other person may be bored, too. Time to find a different subject.
Have you figured out any ways to tell if you’re boring someone? If you're worried about it, here are 7 topics to avoid if you don't want to risk being a bore. What other strategies do you use?
Looking for a good book? Please consider The Happiness Project (can't resist mentioning: #1 New York Times bestseller).