Embracing a life more ordinary

By Polly Vernon

It used to be enough to have a quietly quotidian existence. But now our determination to ‘out-interesting’ each other — at dinner parties, on social media, in our careers — defines our age.

Illustration / Thinkstock.
Illustration / Thinkstock.

At a recent drinks party, I met a man who said he was chive-phobic. "You're afraid of chives?" I said. "Yes." "The herb?" "I have to be careful which supermarket aisles I wander down. They can take you unawares."

While I was processing this information, another guest mentioned, casually, that she did not, had not and would never own a mobile phone. "This notion of being constantly in touch, constantly available, makes me feel horribly claustrophobic!"

A third (40 if he was a day) introduced himself as a drum 'n' bass DJ, only it turned out he was actually a television producer. "By day," he said, opaquely.

At which point, I understood: we were trying to "out-interesting" each other! It was that kind of party! I countered by telling the assembled group that I'd never once cooked a roast dinner, I have no instinct for telling my left from my right, and I think being on Facebook is vulgar, which is why I'm not.

Things descended rapidly from there. I awoke the following day with a hangover and the suspicion I'd insisted that everyone look at my most recent tattoo and hear the lengthy, exaggerated tale about why, how and when it was acquired. Again.

Increasingly, this is the way my friends, associates, colleagues, fleeting acquaintances, online connections - and I - choose to engage. Where we used to flirt, bitch, gossip or tease, shoot the breeze, compare house prices or have barbed exchanges about politics, we now competitively showboat our eccentricities, penchants, proclivities and outlandish pastimes.

Our brushes with death and borderline obsessive preoccupation with One Direction, our app-development project sideline and our mortal fear of herbs ...

We don't just do it at parties. We do it at work and at brunch, when falling into casual conversation with people we barely know (baristas, the supermarket man) and (beyond everywhere else) we do it online, where Being Really Really Interesting All The Time has become a received form on social networking sites, on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

I suspect my scene is not exceptional in this, because (quite apart from the evidence presented by the internet) the pursuit of interesting is dictating the pace and colour of all contemporary culture.

It's the reason so many of us consider ourselves foodies: we want our choices of bread and olive oil, our complex coffee requirements, and our "Is it okay if I go off-menu?" to make us seem different, distinct, special. It's why we give our children preposterous names, why we practise obscure forms of Pilates.

The urge to be interesting particularly afflicts the young. It explains selfies - the digital self-portraiture that dominates social networking - hipsters and style bloggers.

Interesting is the driving force behind the modern obsession with celebrities, with people who are deemed Officially Interesting by consensus, particularly with those who distinguish themselves not by professional accomplishment or talent, but by the simple act of being (see the Kardashian family).

In the UK it's been cited as a contributing factor in spiralling figures on youth unemployment. In 2012, Works and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith identified a rising tide of job snobbishness among young people, rooted, he said, in "a twisted culture that thinks being a celebrity or appearing on The X Factor is the only route worth pursuing."

I'm not sure if I entirely agree with this perspective. I think the young are torn between X Factor-flavoured dreams and a sense the economic climate means nothing much will ever happen to them anyway; which is both defeatist and understandable, especially if, as a graduate, you've just spent three years and thousands of dollars acquiring a qualification no one cares about.

Having said which, I did begin my working life in an entry-level job - only I thought it was wildly interesting. It was the early 1990s, and, equipped with a mediocre degree and a rampant desire for glamour, I launched myself upon the London jobs market as a waitress in a cocktail bar. I worked six nights a week for minimum wage plus tips; the staff uniform was a Lycra catsuit and a Wonderbra, the clientele was largely footballers, City boys and soap stars. I thought I'd arrived.

After a year and a half of that, I downsized the interesting and took an office job, then - eventually - wangled my way into a career as a journalist, a gig that lands you in a non-stop series of situations that certainly sound interesting (touring Japan with rock stars, coffee with prime ministers, encounters with Donald Trump, defamed Wags and notorious party girls ... ) and that, often, really are. Beyond that, journalism demands you are at least a bit interesting.

As a columnist, your perspective, opinions and experiences have to be somewhat unusual or contrary or new - or they're not worth publishing.

My professional life is dictated by assorted quests to uncover the interesting, and be more interesting. Inevitably, those concerns seeped out into my personal life. Interesting is why I haven't bothered getting married and can't really drive.

The not-driving is why I also (fascinatingly enough) walk around 16km a day, which, in turn, is why I'm (incoming true fact about Me alert!) rather thin, at a time when almost everyone else is getting fatter. It's why I've become a coffee snob and a cocktail snob. It's why, probably beyond all else, I dedicate a lot of time, effort, thought and cold, hard cash, to dressing myself in a certain way, a way I fondly imagine to be chic, witty, imaginative, distinctive and, of course, interesting. Oh, get me!

Yet after some decades I'm beginning to find this mindless, endless effort to be interesting exhausting. I'm beginning to wonder if all this interesting is actually just an especially tedious form of showing off. It may be damaging the employment prospects of our young people. Is it also damaging the rest of us, affecting our capacity to interact honestly with each other?

Isn't it the very opposite of interesting, given almost everyone else is at it, too? Should I start living a more ordinary life? And if so, how? I Google "How can I live a life more ordinary?" and find ... really very little.

A couple of blogs and an article about New Zealand's own Wallace Chapman, the television personality and lifestyle guru who expounds the values of "slow living", a practice that revolves around being less hectic, checking your email a maximum three times a day, and reading his book, which is called Don't Just Do Something, Sit There.

I can see how doing less would naturally entail fewer attempts to be or appear interesting. I end up semi-disappearing down the online rabbit hole dedicated to mindfulness, and ultimately download a smartphone app called Headspace, which takes you through some meditation practice and is very nice indeed.

I'm beginning to think I'm on to something - but then I discover Headspace is at the centre of a media whirl: anyone who's anyone (slash, considers themselves interesting) is already doing it, up to and including the actress Emma Watson. This renders my efforts to be more ordinary little more than an inadvertent clambering on a bandwagon, which is definitely not the point.

How to proceed? I could ditch the fancy clothes for outfits I haven't meticulously planned and co-ordinated days in advance. I could get fatter. I could get married. It all sounds a little extreme, and also, might such efforts to be more ordinary somehow end up as part of my interesting narrative?

I draft an agreement with myself, a manifesto for a life more ordinary. I base it on one principle: in the future, I will monitor my own behaviour, and if I find myself doing anything at all, while simultaneously planning how that action might play out in the retelling - then I will stop.

Next, I turn to @b0ringtweets for inspiration. It's a Twitter feed devoted to revelations of the "Good morning. I just coughed" and "Just saw a cat" variety. In among the breathless, unrelenting bons mots, self-consciously crafted witticisms and perpetual attempts to self-promote of just about everyone else on Twitter, @b0ringtweets provides an unassuming, funny blast of what- ever the internet's equivalent of fresh air is.

I could attempt to do something similar with my Twitter account, but that would be derivative. Instead, I delete my Twitter app from my iPhone, and swear to minimise my attempts to Tweet "interesting" vignettes, from there on in.

A fortnight later, I think this small act alone might be helping. I've certainly lost the compulsion to offer 140-character length searing insights into the state of my soul/lunch/the evening's telly. It is, I think, a start.

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