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9 Ways the Most Boring People Will Bore You

... and the 4 ways you can keep from boring others.

Alike You/Shutterstock
Source: Alike You/Shutterstock

I wonder if there is anyone who has ever not worried about being boring—maybe only people so full of themselves that it never occurs to them that they could be anything but fascinating to those around them. Or maybe people who really are fascinating, and just don't know it.

What we don't need to wonder about is what makes people come across as boring. There is actually systematic research on that—not a lot, but enough to provide the first set of answers.

In a series of studies, social psychologist Mark Leary and three colleagues found that we can bore other people either by what we have to say or how we say it: Content and style both matter. They also found that we are probably right to fret about whether other people might be judging us as boring, because if they are, they are likely to be judging us harshly on many other qualities as well.

In the first set of studies, the researchers asked people to describe things "that other people do that make them seem boring to you." Then they made a list of the 43 kinds of things mentioned most often, and asked several hundred more people to rate how boring they thought those behaviors were. In the end, they came up with nine categories of boring behavior.

Starting with the most boring, they are:

  1. Negative egocentrism. The #1 most boring way of behaving was what the researchers described as "being negative and complaining, talking about one's problems, displaying disinterest in others."
  2. Banality. "Talking about trivial or superficial things, being interested in only one topic, and repeating the same stories and jokes again and again."
  3. Low affectivity. Showing little enthusiasm, speaking in a monotone, engaging in very little eye contact, behaving in a very unexpressive way.
  4. Tediousness. "Talking slowly, pausing a long time before responding, taking a long time to make one's points, and dragging conversations on."
  5. Passivity. Having little to say, not having any opinions, being too predictable or too likely to try to conform with what everyone else is saying.
  6. Self-preoccupation. Talking all about yourself.
  7. Seriousness. Coming across as very serious, rarely smiling.
  8. Boring ingratiation. "Trying to be funny or nice in order to impress other people."
  9. Distraction. Doing things that interfere with the conversation, getting sidetracked too easily, and engaging in too much small talk.

In the next set of studies, participants were videotaped as they engaged in conversation, then other people rated them on how boring they seemed, and the researchers painstakingly coded the kinds of things they had said in the conversations.

Here are a few of the ways they discovered that boring and interesting people behaved differently:

  1. Interesting people disclose more of their thoughts and feelings than boring people do. (This is different from just talking about yourself all the time.)
  2. Interesting people also contribute more information, not just emotions, to the conversation than boring people do.
  3. Boring people use more "empty words" and say more things that don't mean much—for example, saying "uh-huh" to agree with other people, but not much else.
  4. Boring people also contribute less to the conversation overall than interesting people do.

In the last study, Leary and his colleagues showed people video clips of people who were judged by their peers as especially boring or especially interesting. Without telling the people viewing the tapes who was considered boring or interesting, the researchers just asked them to rate the conversationalists on many different attributes.

And wow, did the boring people get nailed.

They were judged more harshly than the interesting people in nearly every way: They were liked less. They were assumed to be less popular. They were judged to be less friendly and enthusiastic. They seemed harder to get to know. They were even denigrated on attributes that don't seem relevant to being boring or interesting: Boring people were judged less likely to be strong or secure, or to be leader. On only two of the 18 attributes tested were the boring and interesting people judged as equals: They were both seen as similar in their reliability and their competence.

There was, though, one significant way in which the boring people were judged more positively than the interesting ones: People thought they were smarter.