Tomorrow I am speaking to a group of students about what it is like to work as a copy editor. I have never not been nervous before giving a talk like this. I worry that the things I say won't be useful, or coherent, or anything that the students haven't already heard. Most of all, I worry that I will be boring.
An audience will forgive many things, we are told, but they will never forgive you for being boring. I fear that even my best material – "A lot of the rules around hyphens actually don't make any sense," said while slamming a fist on the table – will lose them. But by the time you read this it will be over and maybe it will have been a great success. (Narrator: "It was not a great success.")
No one will tell you when you are being boring, unless they are your child and/or they want to hurt your feelings. You have to look for clues. Are they avoiding eye contact? Do they keep checking their phone? Are they live-tweeting how boring the conversation is? A clear sign is an unearthly glaze over the eyes, indicating that the person's brain has floated up out of their body and is beginning to glide around the room in search of someone interesting to talk to.
It happened to me this week at an event. Going into the conversation, I knew there was a risk that I would be boring but, after a successful conversation the previous week about spiders, I was feeling match-fit. Five minutes in, I saw it: my companion's brain had left her body. I quickly lost all hope of resuscitating our conversation and allowed subjects to flow through me chaotically: my cat, cats in the neighbourhood, how cats believe that humans are just very big cats.
A short essay in the online collection The Book of Life (produced by The School of Life) captures this phenomenon whereby a person tries to ward off the disaster of being boring: "We become insistent and wilfully oblivious; we give up seeking to delight and settle instead on the more modest hope of not being thrown out." It's the conversational equivalent of jumping the shark.
Maybe these fears aren't surprising, given the way we are directed to what's interesting, over and over. Since attention is money, interestingness drives which ideas are shared. You can see it at work in popular Twitter accounts, self-help titles with swear words, which scientific discoveries are publicised, which dogs in a shelter are most likely to be rehomed.
Somewhere along the way, I've conflated "having interesting things to say" with "having worth". This isn't logical. Every person, no matter how talented or knowledgeable, sometimes acts like a big old bore. I bet even Prince complained about the mould on his bathroom ceiling once or rang a biscuit manufacturer to complain their packets were too hard to open.
The point is that occasionally boring others is part of being alive and, further to this, often the deeper truths we're looking for aren't exciting or surprising. Maybe your restlessness isn't a sign of some spiritual malaise; maybe you just drink too much coffee. Even recognising all of this, it's hard to disentangle my self-worth from the idea of sometimes not being very exciting conversationally.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
The Book of Life says I need to develop "an internal robustness" that will allow me to withstand the thought of my "tedious aspects". Sigh. In her memoir Maybe You Should Talk to Somebody, psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb describes what makes some patients boring to her. They're the ones who won't let you into their lives beyond a certain point: "People who are aggressively boring want to keep you at bay."
This reminds me that the conversations I most enjoy are simply those in which I feel included. As a kid I loved a next-door neighbour, Bob, who had little to say but would let me sit next to him on a rickety bench in the sun and watch him smoke. A former workmate used to talk a lot about her various ailmentsband this should have been fantastically boring, but she had an intensity, warmth and capacity for delight that drew me in; her ailments took on the quality of a Nordic saga.
When people talk about sharing a comfortable silence with someone, I think what they mean is they relieve each other of the pressure to be interesting. This is a kind of vulnerability – which is never boring.
So I lean into my fears about the talk I am giving tomorrow. Maybe there is a way to forgive, or at least negotiate with, my tedious aspects. A lot of the rules around hyphens actually don't make any sense, if you know what I mean.