Are you boring? Seven tips for knowing if you’re boring someone.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Seven tips for knowing if you’re boring someone.

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, as 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.

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 says, “Oh really? Oh really? That’s interesting. Oh really?” is probably not too 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. Similiarly…

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 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 in a conversation 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 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.

Along the same lines, if you’re a speaker trying to figure out if an audience is interested in what you’re saying:

7. Audience posture. Back in 1885, Sir Francis Galton wrote a paper in 1885 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 upright and still 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.

Have you figured out any ways to tell if you’re boring someone?

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  • http://www.fitbottomedgirls.blogspot.com Fit Bottomed Girls

    These are fantastic tips. I’ll have to remember that last one when speaking in front of a group of people! (Alternatively, I’ll have to watch my body language when in meetings!)

  • Paige

    Great tips, Gretchen.
    I agree with the interrupting tip. I tend to do this and often apologize for my rude behavior, but I DO get so interested in the conversation.
    Thanks!

  • http://shanelyang.com/blogs/articles/ Shanel Yang

    Love this topic! Simply fascinating — how to read people! Additional signs that someone is bored with something I’m saying:
    1. Lack of eye contact (person begins looking around the room or at his/her watch)
    2. Fidgeting in chair
    3. Leaning back with crossed arms and set expression and rarely moving (also indicates annoyance at being bored or disagreement with what I’m saying)
    4. Changing the subject or repeated attempts to change the subject
    5. Yawning, excessive sipping, nibbling, doodling, or fiddling with pen, keys, etc.
    I also wrote a post about “How to Read People” at http://shanelyang.com/2008/06/06/how-to-read-people/

  • http://www.successprofessor.ca Success Professor

    Great tips.
    Of course in digital space (our blogs, websites etc.) these things change. We have no option of being boring. If our blog is boring people will leave (and not come back). If our YouTube video is boring people will stop watching it, incomplete. It is being boring in digital space that we need to watch out for. As Seth Godin says we need to be “remarkable”.

  • http://blog.cooklikeyourgrandmother.com Drew Kime

    Related to your first, I use what I call “The Three OK Rule.” If I’m on the phone with someone and they say, “Okay … okay … okay …” what they’re really saying is, “Goodbye.”
    I screwed up and told my wife about this. Now if I say to her, “Okay … okay …,” she’ll stop talking, give me “that look,” and say, “Don’t you dare 3-OK me to my face.”

  • Sarah

    These are great tips–thanks.
    Children’s literature and obesity are two of my favorite topics to talk about too–maybe I should learn more about Winston Churchill!!

  • http://www.perilouslyprecocious.com Ash

    Body language and eye contact tells it all. I used to have a high school teacher who watched how much we blinked… if no blinky, probably no one was listening!

  • http://www.escapefromcubiclenation.com Pamela Slim

    Thanks for the plug Gretchen!
    I notice that sometimes I get going on a topic of interest (entrepreneurship, marketing, and, yes, the deadly “my kid said the cutest thing!”)and I notice all the signs of boredom you mention, even on the phone.
    Goal for 2009: listen more, yack less.
    Hope your book is going great.
    All the best,
    -Pam

  • Mer

    There’s also a telltale way peoples’ eyes glaze over when they’re bored.

  • Cara

    Excellent tips. I suspect, however, that the people who need this advice most will be the least likely to heed it. :)

  • Meg Renicker

    Hye Gretchen, I liked #5, it reminded me of the lecture mode parents get into with kids. They seem oblivious to the fact that they are not being listened to; in fact, they are probably teaching kids how to learn sophistocated non-listening techniques once they are past the age of tantrum throwing.
    I believe in giving people my attention when they are talking because everyone wants to be heard, the only problem is that they don’t stop talking or become conversational. Guess maybe teaching conversation as a skill in school meight be a good idea also.

  • http://www.thatcoolbroad.com thatcoolbroad

    Excellent tips! It goes well with one of my posts, Cool Broads know when to shut their pie-hole which touches on the whole if-you’re-boring-someone-stop-talking aspect.
    http://www.thatcoolbroad.com/2008/05/04/cool-broads-know-when-to-shut-their-pie-hole/
    I’m gonna link to it.
    Thanks!
    tcb

  • Molly B.

    Meta feedback: parallel construction of the point headings would have helped me understand your post more clearly. /pedantic unsolicited criticism
    Excellent topic. Will try to read the full post as well as the comments when I’m feeling the energy to sort out what’s what.

  • http://lovingpulse.wordpress.com Davina

    Hi Gretchen. I am not good at small talk and I hear myself saying “oh really” a lot.
    Another thing I’ve noticed is that I feel it is rude to stare at a person so I glance away periodically. Then I feel like they must think I’m bored or not listening.
    I’ve found the opposite with interruptions. In my experience it’s happened because the other person isn’t really listening, but thinking about something they want to say and can’t wait to get it in.

    • Michele Graham

      proof of boredome

      1. just keep looking at screen not a person

      2. look away or around or past someone for more than 2 seconds

      3. move or turn away from someone

      proof of engagement

      1. strong eye contact

      2. stand/sit close OR face a person directly even if distant

      GOOD LUCK ENGAGING FOLKS!

  • http://geckomusings.blogspot.com Gecko

    Yep, lack of eye contact has to be the biggest one for me. And when people say, “Ah Well” or “Well anyway”…means they want to change the subject or leave.

  • http://www.yourdailysliceofwellness.com angela

    Being true to yourself is very important in relationships.
    I think being a good listener makes a person very attractive.

  • Eryn

    Sometimes squirmy people aren’t bored, they just have a difficult time staying still for long periods of time.

  • Caitlin

    In some cases, it is possible to tell when you are talking too much in situations where talking should be mostly even. When in an interview, if the interviewer leans back and puts their pen down it is an indicator that you are not engaging the other person in the conversation and they are likely tuning you out. Always be concise, always ask questions, and if you see someone pull this move – wrap it up!

  • Charlotte Wittenkamp

    On positioning, there is some evidence that women prefer face to face conversations where that may be confrontational to men. And many good conversations with teenagers take place side by side, perhaps for the same reason that when difference in status may be implied, full face is too much.
    That doesn’t mean that Gretchen turning away is not a sign that she is bored, only that her experience may not translate universally.
    And always, we have two ears and one mount to listen twice as much as we speak.

  • Donna McBroom-Theriot

    I have actually shown interest in what someone was saying and when it was my turn (after waiting patiently) to speak, they zoned out. Literally. I stopped talking med-sentence and they never realized it. Then, when they did notice and asked what. I simply said you weren’t listening anyway so it doesn’t matter. End that conversation.

  • Clare

    I really like this article – relevant to both work and home life. I have a young son with Aspergers and will share both this and your article on small talk with him. We can all learn from someone. His approach is to ask very directly if he is being boring. This is surprising disarming and can often turn a conversation round.