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How to Tell That You’re Boring

... and the social burden bores inflict on others.

Key points

  • There has been little research done on the factors that make a person "boring."
  • Specific personal qualities, occupations, and hobbies are consistently associated with the boring stereotype.
  • Boring people tend to create a social burden for those around them and may also undermine their own quality of life.
  • Changing habits and behaviors can help reduce the likelihood of others seeing a person as boring.
Everett Collection/Shutterstock
Source: Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Is it only your varicose veins that prevent you from being colorless? Is the experience of spending an hour with you like spending a week with someone else? If I see you chatting with someone, and one of you looks bored, are you the other one? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you just might be a boring person.

But what exactly does that mean?

People can be boring in different ways. For example, you might work in a boring occupation or have hobbies that most other people find boring, but your quick wit and engaging personality save you from being thought of as “a bore.” On the other hand, you may be dry and bland interpersonally, but your musical or artistic talent or your fascinating job make you an interesting person in the eyes of others in spite of yourself.

What does the research tell us about this?

How Can You Tell If You're Boring?

While there has been a lot of research on what makes a task, a relationship, or an experience boring, there has been surprisingly little work on what makes individuals boring. Some early research on boring people indicated that having very narrow interests, repeating the same old jokes and stories, complaining incessantly, and displaying little interest in the lives of others are common ingredients of being a bore, but there has simply not yet been much systematic study of this all-too-common quality.

A series of promising new studies by psychologist Wijnand van Tilburg and his colleagues help to expand our understanding of the social stereotypes associated with boring people. In his first study, van Tilburg asked 115 people to generate a list of things that they associate with boring people, and in a second study, he had 116 different people rate how strongly and consistently the items generated in the first study characterized a stereotypically boring person. The results were broken down according to the personal qualities, occupations, and hobbies associated with boring people.

The personal qualities most strongly associated with being boring included the following:

  • Not having any interests, having only very narrow ones, or perhaps having only one
  • Not being funny and having no sense of humor
  • Lacking in opinions
  • Complaining a lot and being negative
  • Talking too much and being a bad listener
  • Lacking creativity and ambition

The most boring occupations included almost anything associated with data entry, finance, insurance, or taxation: Accountants, bankers, insurance agents, statisticians, actuaries, and financial advisers are apparently in the high-risk-of-being-boring category. People in “cleaning” occupations, such as dishwashers and janitors, also scored high on the boring index, as did store clerks and office workers.

Hobbies waving a red flag to signal that you are unexciting include sleeping or studying a lot, watching television, attending church and engaging in other religious activities, bird watching, collecting things like stamps, dolls, or coins, and enjoying anything related to mathematics.

So, if you are an accountant who complains a lot and is not known for your sense of humor, you had better watch out, especially if you like to fuss with your bird feeder on your way to church.

What Are the Consequences of Being Boring?

Dr. van Tilburg and his research team incorporated the qualities unearthed in the first two studies into short descriptions of hypothetical individuals who possessed combinations of these qualities that were very high, very low, or somewhere in-between on how boring they were judged to be. They then used these personal profiles in three studies to see how being stereotyped as a bore influences the manner in which others respond to you.

The results indicated that people who were thought to be boring were perceived as being less interpersonally warm and less competent than more interesting people and that we will go to great lengths to avoid socializing with such individuals. In fact, in one of the studies, they asked people to actually say how much they would demand to be paid to hang out with the hypothetical people for a period of time ranging from one to seven days. The experimental participants always demanded more money to hang out with boring people, and the longer the period of time involved, the more pronounced the differences in compensation were required to be in the company of boring versus not boring people.

As always, there are limitations to the studies I just described. All of the participants in these online studies were from the U.K. or the United States, and it is reasonable to think that one’s culture’s norms and values will exert a strong influence on what is perceived as boring and what is not, so the stereotypes of a bore might be different from place to place.

Can Bores Be Rehabilitated?

Unfortunately, there are serious social costs to being boring. Other people will avoid you like the plague and squirm at the very thought of spending time with you, and this can completely undermine your ability to maintain friendships and romantic relationships. As unpleasant as it may be, the first step toward remedying your situation is to recognize it for what it is and to develop strategies for presenting yourself in a less boring way. Your occupation and sense of humor may be difficult to change, but you can certainly work on being a better listener, less of a complainer, and maybe not bragging too much about your coin collection at cocktail parties.

Remember that how boring you are is a function of how many of the boring qualities you possess and crossing even a few of these off the list will help you a lot.

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