Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Eight tips for knowing if you’re boring someone.
‘Tis the season of merry-making, which means you’re probably more likely than usual to find yourself making polite and perhaps awkward chit-chat. One of the challenges of the holidays!
If you have trouble talking to a stranger in those situations, here are some tips to consider.
But once you’re talking, how do you know if the other person is interested in your conversation – or not? One challenge is that the more socially adept a person is, the better he or she is at hiding boredom. It’s a rare person, however, who can truly look fascinated while bored.
Here are the factors I watch, when trying to figure out if I’m connecting with someone. These are utterly unscientific – I’m sure someone has made a proper study of this, but these are just my observations (mostly from noting how I behave when I’m bored and trying to hide it):
1. Repeated, perfunctory responses. A person who repeats, “Oh really? Wow. Oh really? Interesting.” isn’t particularly engaged.
2. Simple questions. People who are bored ask simple questions. “When did you move?” “Where did you go?” People who are interested ask more complicated questions that show curiosity, not mere politeness.
3. Interruption. Although it sounds rude, interruption is actually a good sign, I think. It means a person is bursting to say something, and that shows interest. Similarly…
4. Request for clarification. A person who is sincerely interested in what you’re saying will ask you to elaborate or to explain. “What does that term mean?” “When exactly did that happen?” “Then what did he say?” are the kinds of questions that show that someone is trying closely to follow what you’re saying.
5. Imbalance of talking time. I suspect that many people fondly suppose that they usually do eighty percent of the talking because people find them fascinating. Sometimes, it’s true, a discussion involves a huge download of information desired by the listener; that’s a very satisfying kind of conversation. In general, though, people who are interested in a subject have things to say themselves; they want to add their own opinions, information, and experiences. If they aren’t doing that, they’re probably keeping quiet in the hopes that the conversation will end faster. Or maybe you just aren’t letting them get a word in — recently I was talking to someone who, though fascinating, didn’t want to let me contribute to the conversation. I enjoyed it, but not as much as if I’d been able to talk, too.
6. Abrupt changes in topic. If you’re talking to someone about, say, the life of Winston Churchill (I have a tendency to dwell at length on this particular subject), and all of a sudden the other person says, “So how are your kids?”, it’s a sign that he or she isn’t very interested or perhaps not listening at all. When someone makes this kind of switch, I have to fight the urge not to drag the topic back to what I want to talk about – but the fact that someone has introduced a completely different subject is a sure sign that the subject is not engaging.
7. Body position. People with a good connection generally turn to face each other. A person who is partially turned away isn’t fully embracing the conversation. Along the same lines, if you’re a speaker trying to figure out if an audience is interested in what you’re saying:
8. Audience posture. Back in 1885, Sir Francis Galton wrote a paper called “The Measurement of Fidget.” He determined that people slouch and lean when bored, so a speaker can measure the boredom of an audience by seeing how far from vertically upright they are. Also, attentive people fidget less; bored people fidget more. An audience that’s sitting still and upright is interested, while an audience that’s horizontal and squirmy is bored.
I often remind myself of La Rochefoucauld’s observation, “We are always bored by those whom we bore.” If I’m bored, there’s a good chance the other person may be bored, too. Time to find a different subject. (Here’s a list of some topics to avoid, if you don’t want to risk boring people.)
Have you figured out any ways to tell if you’re boring someone?
* I really enjoy the blog Ivy League Insecurities — “because no league prepares you for life.”
* It’s Word-of-Mouth Day, when I gently encourage (or, you might think, pester) you to spread the word about the Happiness Project. You might:
— Forward the link to someone you think would be interested
— Link to a post on Twitter (follow me @gretchenrubin)
— Sign up for my free monthly newsletter (about 30,000 people get it)
— Pre-order the book for your friends (or yourself) — here’s an e-card to let them know it’s coming
— Put a link to the blog in your Facebook status update
Thanks! I really appreciate any help. Word of mouth is the BEST.