By Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project via DivineCaroline
In one of my favorite movies, a quirky documentary called Sherman’s March, the documentary maker’s former high school teacher tells him, “As people get older, they get more like themselves. And you’re getting more boring.” I’ve never forgotten that.
Like most people, probably, I have several pet subjects that I love to talk about—subjects that are sometimes interesting to other people, and sometimes not. Don’t get me started on happiness, or obesity, or children’s literature, or Winston Churchill, unless you really want to talk about it. (I do manage to be very disciplined about not talking about my children too much.)
I’ve developed a list of signs to look for—indicators that I might be boring someone. Just because a person isn’t actually walking away or changing the subject doesn’t mean that that person is genuinely engaged in a conversation. 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 stifling a yawn.
These are the factors I watch when trying to figure out if I’m connecting with someone. They’re 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 says, “Oh really? Oh really? That’s interesting. Oh really?” is probably not too engaged.
2. Simple questions. People that are bored ask simple questions. “When did you move?” “Where did you go?” People that are interested ask more complicated questions, which shows curiosity, not mere politeness.
3. Interruption. Although it sounds rude, interruption is actually a good sign. 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 need you to elaborate or to explain. “What does that term mean?” “When exactly did that happen?” “Back up and tell me what happened first” are the kind 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 suppose that they usually do 80 percent of the talking in a conversation because people find them fascinating. Sometimes, it’s true; if 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 probably just want the conversation to end faster.
6. Body position. People with a good connection generally turn fully to face each other. A person who is partially turned away isn’t fully embracing the conversation.
7. 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. In addition, attentive people fidget less; bored people fidget more. An audience that remains upright is still interested, while an audience that is 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.