Eight Tips to Know If You’re Being Boring.

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.”

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Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Good one, Gretchen. I’d actually enjoy conversing about Churchill, because you’re so obviously passionate about him. I like talking to people who feel excited and fascinated by their subject. That energy draws me in. But in general, I think the whole conversation thing is complicated. There’s an art to it. And we’re not very good listeners, period. In my perfect world we would all get training in the type of listening and responding that encourages deep, satisfying conversation. And then we would all feel heard, and as a result be less boring, because we wouldn’t have to hog the conversation in order to get ego strokes.

  • Oh my god, I wish my roommate would read this list. I use every single one of these tactics on her, but she never gets the hint. She just talks AT me all the time, about things I don’t give a damn about. Any advice on dealing with that? I’m not willing to say something and hurt her feelings, though I know she probably does it with everyone and it might help her.

  • ElizMcK

    Just one small point. If you interpret that your audience is bored, make sure to ask yourself if that person may also be shy. Shy people are not always that attentive either, (as I can attest). I know I am a fidgetter and that I turn often also away, but I’m not necessarily bored.

    And, thank you thank you thank you for point #5. I know 2 or 3 people that talk incessantly (about nothing) while I just sit and wait for them to run out of air. They are oblivious (while I AM actually really bored).

    Great points, especially for the holidays and I will try to watch my body language so as not to offend or have others interpret that I am bored.

  • I’ve got the “3-Okay Rule” for phone calls.

    If you ever hear someone on the phone say, “Okay … okay … … okay … ” what they’re really saying is, “Goodbye.” The other person just isn’t hearing it.

    I should never have told my wife about the 3-Okay Rule. I once said “Okay” twice in a row in a conversation. She stopped and said, “Don’t you ‘3-okay’ me.”

  • I love tip day! And these are some great tips — no one likes a boring person!

  • I’ve noticed that when someone uses the word “interesting,” it’s usually kind of a cop-out, meaning they don’t really care much about whatever they’re describing. “The lecture was interesting” usually means that it was neither brilliant nor terrible – just boring.

    I like the observation about interruptions, Gretchen. Never really gave it much thought, but it’s so true!

    • gretchenrubin

      I have to admit that I’m an inveterate interrupter so maybe this is must me
      justifying my habit! Though it’s true, I do find that my level of
      interruption rises as my interest rises.

  • This is very helpful. As an adult with Asperger’s it’s difficult for me to interpret verbal and nonverbal signs. I’m always looking for “methods” to improve this, and you just gave me one. Thank you!

  • Surely, apart from the adults who have a medical condition such as Asperger’s, all adults have a duty not to _be_ boring. And towards that I cite my favourite social commentators/ lyricists/ musicians/ pop stars extraordinaire whose song Being Boring contains some sage advice on the matter: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DnvFOaBoieE

  • This post is a great reminder for me. I am trying to find alternative ways to stay interested when I am talking to people who are much more reserved than I am– that is, I’m having a difficult time getting them to talk about much of anything… instead of dominating the conversation, which makes it more fun for me but probably not for them, I’m trying to listen as closely as possible to unspoken stories– clothing choices, body posture, breath patterns– my own as well as those I’m speaking with. When I do this, it seems that shyer types often speak up more, as they feel they are really being listened to… something of a challenge for me, as I could easily wax poetic on any number of things, but worthwhile.

  • Jon

    Hmm…maybe this is what I could share with my student who has Asperger’s Syndrom and is having a tough time understanding that others do not share some or all of his interests. Thanks!

  • Mary

    One guaranteed way not to be boring: Get the other person talking about himself or herself. I promise, if you do this, s/he’ll think *you* are fascinating. Not sure how to do it? Just let your natural curiosity run uncensored, or read Barbara Walters on “How to Talk to Anyone about Practically Anything.” I read it about 30 years ago — one of the most useful books I’ve read in my life.

    • Mary

      Sorry, that was: How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anyone. Shame on moi.

      • Mary

        Oh, no. One more try … “About Practically Anything” I’m so sorry.

        • Thanks Mary. I’m never sure what to do when I ask people questions about themselves and I get one word answers… that’s a title I will certainly check out 🙂

    • Baba Yaga

      Proving that very few social rules are universal:

      Oh, lord no. Talk to me about your passion & I’ll probably follow with pleasure. But talking about myself is a trial, unless it flows naturally from conversation. (Natural flow = selected highlights.)

      The greatest trial of all is responding to the clunky questions near-strangers ask one another, in an endeavour to be polite.

      (That may be one reason, not the only one, why I don’t initiate conversation well. *I* don’t like them, so it seems indelicate to ask them of others.)

      • Ah. Yes. My least favorite question to ask, or be asked, ‘so, what do you do?’ But knowing who wants to be asked about themselves and who does not more definitively would be wonderful.

        • gretchenrubin

          That’s why I like the question “What’s keeping you busy these days?” That
          way, people can talk about whatever is most interesting to them — maybe
          it’s work, maybe it’s something else.

          • Mary

            That’s a keeper. It may have been in the same book that I once read it’s rude to ask (or at least rude to lead with), “What do you do?” You do have to be careful not to sound like you’re grilling someone. It helps to give a little something back once in awhile. And I probably do have to be more sensitive to people who don’t like to talk about themselves — good point BY.

          • malok175

            I like that question “what’s keeping you busy these days?” My husband was injured at work and is now disabled and finds questions about ‘what do you do’ embarassing. This is a much better question! Thank you for the suggestion. This is a good way for us to redirect the ‘what do you do’. We can respond back with, ‘well, I’ll tell you what’s been keeping me busy lately….” =)

  • Great ideas for the season. I recently read (and agree) that to make yourself seem more interesting, talk much less and become a great listener. Everyone loves to feel they are truly heard and will find you fascinating. I try to remember that at parties.

  • sierraseven

    Oh, really? Wow. Interesting.

    I have to ask … do you include remarks such as, “I often remind myself of La Rochefoucauld’s observation” in your real-life conversations? If so, I can understand why you are so conversant with how people express boredom.

    • gretchenrubin

      Hi SierraSeven! Great to see you back on the blog!

  • CreateBeautyDaily

    These are great tips! I’d also add in one great tip I heard so many years ago that I don’t recall from where it came: If you’re telling a story and you get interrupted (a phone rings, someone comes over to interject something, etc), only continue the story if someone says, “You were saying?” or “Then what happened?” If no one prompts you to continue then your story wasn’t holding interest. That doesn’t mean it’s a boring story, but maybe the “audience” is distracted or it’s the wrong topic for that particular “audience.” This tip has served me well for 15 years or so!

    • gretchenrubin

      That is a GREAT tip.

  • Dicky

    This list is confusing. It mixes bullets with signs of being boring and and signs of being interesting.

  • Dorian

    Your third tip is odd to me. Here’s what I think: there is either interest in the subject-matter or in gloating about it, but there is definitely little to no interest in your contribution.

  • mostinterestingman

    Huh? I interrupt simply because what I have to say is clearly 100% more important than what you are blathering on about. At least now I have a great excuse if I am called out for doing it, thanks. Maybe interrupting someone is actually the product of ignorance or apathy? Truth is, I don’t know,…nor do I care. lol 😉
    Stay Thirsty My Friends, Dos Equis etc.,etc.,

    • vtara718

      Do you have many friends?

  • mausfrau

    Well… a lot of this depends on the listener. Sometimes people are just preoccupied with something, and nothing else is going to interest them until they’ve resolved it.

    I’ve also known people who seem to be unable to listen to another person, and exhibit “bored” behaviors no matter how un-boring the speaker is. Then, to mask their non-listening, they start grilling the speaker with simple questions or they change the subject. I know one person who, for a whole WEEK last month, gave perfunctory responses to nearly everything I said, and then interrupted me with “I saw this thing on craigslist that I’m thinking about buying, but I just don’t know, it’s $175, which seems kinda steep, but…” and then would go on to enumerate all the pros and cons of the purchase. With that person, it’s a persistent habit, but all of us probably do that from time to time.

    My point is that just because someone spaces out or interrupts or asks you stupid questions (sometimes questions that they already know the answer to), it doesn’t mean that *you’re* boring. Sometimes their boredom has nothing to do with you.

    • gretchenrubin

      Excellent point. Some people just can’t listen — whether because they’re
      preoccupied with some pressing issue in their own head or because they just
      never listen to anyone else!

      • vtara718

        Sometimes it is hard to listen if a person drags on on about the same thing all the time.
        I have a coworker who talks on and on about how horrible her husband is. She will never leave him so I’d like to say you made your choice so deal with it.

      • call center nice guy

        well, with that my wife tells me i am ADD or ADHD? can i be? i have an attention span of about a minute or so. wait a minute? what was i talking about? seriously, that’s about as long as it is. i really want to listen but it’s boring me to hear about a basic days activities. i’ve tried going to a quack dr but nothing after 4 visits in a 3 month period… scheduling? anyway? what do you do about that? me i mean? she’s getting frustrated but my job is the same way because i work at a call center for VERIZON WIRELESS and its the same thing with them… answer the question and get off the phone..

  • This is a pretty good list all for number 1. I always heard repeated perfunctory responses referred to as “active listening”. This allows the speaker to continue their speech at length. Do you a bored listener would want a mundane conversation to continue? Are there any tricks you know that a bored person can use to end one of these conversations?

  • When I listen to people I like to look people in the eyes, but sometimes when I speak I don’t like to look someone directly in the eye because I get distracted on what I want to say. Maybe I get lost in people’s eyes or something?!

    I like this list, and hope that my comment wasn’t boring.

  • Helen

    The eight tips are boring. The Happiness Project is very interesting!

  • interesting. a reminder of the basics.

  • interesting. a reminder of the basics.

  • marycorbet

    Incidentally, these tips are especially pertinent to teachers – just reading the tips, I immediately saw how they apply in the classroom! Great list!

  • rosyosegueda

    I really interested about this one because I have English like a second languages. And some time even if I interested in a conversation ,some time don’t understand completly what the other try to tell me.
    so that turne the conversation o comunication kind of hard at this point. but i do my best effort when the other person have the pacience to understan this.

  • Great post Gretchen.
    Fact is> the truth hurts sometimes.
    Being bored happens to all of us from time to time. I like your polite response…time to chance the subject to somethig more of interest to the both of you. Or move on to the next person?
    Tim S, Grand Poobah of Smiles

    However if everyone bores you.. there’s a problem there. and it may not be the other people.

  • Scott

    As someone who is hearing impaired, I somewhat disagree with the point about interruption. While I understand the point being made, I might actually argue that someone who interrupts is trying to take control of the conversation and thereby say the speaker is not worth listening to. i.e. being boring. This is extremely rude especially if the speaker has hearing issues.
    Talking is very overrated and I’ve found that everyone wants their say so but no one wants to listen. Give it a try.

  • vtara718

    Also if the audience repeatedly says, “hmmm, I don’t know” they probably aren’t feeling the conversation.

  • Margaret

    They start talking to someone else while you are speaking. This happens a lot since most of the people I talk to have little kids, but sometimes they come back and say, sorry, I missed that, and sometimes they just wander off. Apparently I am not that interesting.

  • mikemacx

    I’m going out on a date next week. I’ll be printing this and studying it thoroughly until then. You haven’t steered my wrong yet Gretchen. I also want to pick up a copy of your book. 2009 wasn’t great for me, but with your help, 2010 will get me back on the road to happiness.

  • When you are bored, try to sleep.

    This article is good. Thank for posting this good article about. You got the point here. Thanks for sharing.

  • very good

  • nice work~ i love it~