What Makes One Person Boring and Another Interesting?

The words “boring” and “interesting” are relative. Most of us have met a bore whom our friends find entertaining, just as we’ve all known someone captivating who bores our friends. Nonetheless, certain traits do appear again and again.

Boring People

Think of the most boring people you know and the first thing you notice is the way they present themselves. Their voice is flat, monotonous and whiney. Indeed, some people have such boring voices it can be hard to concentrate on what they say. Then there is the facial expression: glum, fixed and unsmiling. They also tend to mumble and avoid eye contact. And their clothes are often dull and bland. Many stand or sit in a stiff and wary manner. Some people lean away when they are talking, as though others are contaminated or untrustworthy. They also have a poor grasp of the English language, with a small vocabulary and constant pauses.

In general, bores don’t know they are boring, and this is part of the problem. Even worse are those who think everything that comes out of their mouth is fascinating. At their worst, such people will talk slowly, hesitating and repeating themselves in case you miss something: “I went to the Post Office on Thursday morning, or was it Friday morning? Let me think…yes, Thursday morning.” They simply cannot grasp that others do not share their tastes, views or interests. This failure to recognize the other as a distinct and separate being is a major flaw. Interesting people constantly shift or adjust the conversation, and they do so because they are sensitive to the other person’s interest. Bores lack this imaginative sympathy.

Self-obsession is the essence of a bore. They simply do not take other people into consideration. Some have nothing to say, while others never stop. They talk, but only about themselves. The brutal truth is that most people have virtually no interest in where you have been or what you do. No one wants to hear about your children, your car, your leaking roof, or any other mundane aspect of your life. The only time such things interest them is when they relate to their own lives. In other words, when they can learn from your experiences. For example, they don’t want to hear about your weekend vacation to a local sea resort unless they are planning to stay there themselves.

And people generally dislike hearing about your achievements or successes. Why would they? Your failures interest them because they feel a little better about their own lives. But your achievements make them feel worse. For dull people a conversation is an opportunity to show off. They don’t go to a dinner party to exchange ideas. A dinner party is their stage, not a meeting of equals. This is their reward for all the time and effort invested in building a career – a time to boast, not share.

Others see every conversation as a battle. The other person is their rival or competitor, there to be defeated. Some will deliberately contradict or disagree just so they can beat you down. This kind of bore is heavy, oafish and graceless. They have their extreme and simplistic views, and they will aggressively assert and defend them. Some cannot rest until they have forced others to agree, and yet they concede nothing. They cannot talk about something in an impersonal manner. For example, you go to a party where you mention to someone that you follow Manchester United. He does as well. But instead of sharing your enthusiasm you find yourself arguing about everything. Your fellow supporter even needs to prove that he loves them more than you.

Above all, bores do not listen. That alone is enough to qualify someone. Instead, they wait for you to finish and then talk about what they want to talk about. They don’t respond to what you have just said, and they may even resent you speaking at all. Thus you do not have a conversation between equals but two individuals talking at one another.

Bores also tend to be obsessive. They are interested in one thing and can talk only about that. Of course, that assumes they are interested in something. Sadly, many people seem to have no interest in anything. And that lack of interest, passion and enthusiasm can be exhausting, especially if they are also ignorant. Bored, ignorant people create a flat, dull atmosphere, and their company is like being trapped in a tiny, dark room.

Even worse are those who are both ignorant and arrogant. We have all met these people, the ones who sit there sullenly waiting to be entertained. Often, they will have been physically attractive in their youth. They always had attention and respect, which meant they never needed to develop a personality! That does not mean clever, well-read people are automatically interesting by the way. What matters is curiosity, enthusiasm and an eagerness to learn.

Interesting People

Interesting people are well-mannered. They maintain eye contact, smile, nod and, above all, listen. They may not agree, but they do at least respond to what you actually say. They engage with you, giving you all their time and attention and making you feel the center of the room.

The way someone speaks also makes a difference. Think how certain people command attention because of their accent alone. Hollywood movies, for example, often feature a clever villain with a refined British accent because they know his voice will captivate an American audience. Interesting people vary the tone and speed of their voice as well. Theater actors and news readers are literally trained to do this. If you want to know how to speak, play recordings of the great Shakespearean actors, like John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, etc.

However, eloquence is not enough. Plenty of people are eloquent yet also boring. Why? Because it is all an act or performance. The content is lacking. People can spot a fake a mile away. Interesting people are authentic, giving you their real self and hiding nothing. They have something to say, and that is because they are curious and open-minded. They also read deeply and widely: politics, science, poetry, sport, etc.

Whereas a bore is self-obsessed, interesting people never boast or show off. If they talk about French cinema, or Pink Floyd albums, or whatever it may be, they do so for the love of the subject. They aren’t trying to outdo or impress the other person. On the contrary, they are sensitive to the impression they make. They know when they are beginning to drone or bore their friend and will quickly do something about it.

Closely related to this, they also tend to be self-effacing. People who do not take themselves seriously relax those around them. In most social situations there is an undercurrent of fear, tension and wariness. Self-esteem depends in part on how we feel we compare to others. Once people sense that you are not trying to show off and do not take yourself seriously, they relax. Some people will show off no matter what the circumstances. Most, however, only boast and show off because others provoke them. When people mock themselves, and talk about something purely for the love of the subject, others do the same. That in turn means greater intimacy and pleasure.

Interesting people also create a certain vibe or energy. Just as the bored are usually boring, so the interested are interesting. They are upbeat and enthusiastic. When they talk, they do so passionately. They are also positive. Boring people constantly say things like “who cares?” or “what’s the point?” Interesting people see beauty and wonder everywhere. The greatest of the popular science writers are very good at this. People like Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins never lose a sense of awe and astonishment. And they feel that way about even the most mundane and trivial of objects.

Originality is also important. Interesting people do not regurgitate stuff they’ve heard on the news. And they don’t use clichés. Boring people repeat the same tedious clichés, such as “politicians are all as bad as each other,” or “kids were better behaved when I was young,” etc., and then stand back looking pleased with themselves, as though they just thought it up.

Of course, this suggests that all you need do is read a lot, but that isn’t the case. There are plenty of interesting people who never read at all. But they are observant and engaged. And they are interested in people. That is not the same as being nosy by the way. A nosy person is usually looking for gossip, which basically means they want to hear about misfortune.

Ultimately, there is no secret. We all bore people from time to time. But, though there is no magic trick, there are certain bad habits you need to break, and there are certain traits it would be wise to nurture. After all, everyone likes to be liked!

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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