A A new study has supposedly identified the most boring people: bird watchers, accountants, data analysts and anyone who works in insurance. (What, no trainspotters? A major oversight.) The University of Essex research lists the most boring hobbies like going to church, watching television, and “watching animals.” All of these things were considered worse than philately.
Of course, when you undertake this type of research, you must also find the opposite types. So the study lists actors, scientists, journalists (and in particular “science journalists”) as the “least boring” professions. The research, published in the Bulletin of Personality and Social Psychologywas edited by Wijnand van Tilburg, Eric Igou and Mehr Panjwani, all with refreshingly boring names and presumably blessed by many science journalist friends.
They conducted five experiments involving more than 500 people. The more you dig into their findings, the more you realize how intensely boring we humans all find ourselves.
Not content with criticizing the insurance and data industries as a whole, the respondents had some for smokers, “people who live in medium-sized cities” and “people who talk a lot and often complain”. They dreamed of being financially compensated for socializing with “boring” people (“£35 a day” is the imaginary rate). And there also seems to be a thread of self-loathing running through the conclusions. “Watch television”? Really? If it’s boring, then millions and millions of us with a Netflix password are cursed with the plague of boredom.
Peeling back these Sartrean answers – “Hell is other people” [Hell is other people] – there is not only a general lack of self-awareness but also a lot of contradictions. Take journalists and actors. No one talks more or complains more. And arguably these two professions are also home to many of the few remaining smokers in society. So how can they be both boring and “least boring” at the same time? Are the activities themselves – perfecting a spreadsheet, creating a Facebook folder for your safari wildlife photography, listening to a sermon – supposed to be boring? Or that the people who make them are boring? To be fair, I’d rather be spared any amateur wildlife photography, especially if we’re talking about the close-up of a fox in our backyard that someone in my house was so excited about that they had it framed. (It’s really just a lot of fuzzy orange fuzz.)
The key to all of this is surely the second part of the study’s title, “Boring People: Stereotypical Characteristics, Interpersonal Attributes, and Social Reactions.” This is our the stereotypes of who and what is boring. These preconceptions have as much to do with reality as the idea that you would ever get paid to support someone who makes you yawn. (In fact, that’s most likely the stuff of many professional lives and/or marriages. But that’s another study altogether.)
I know a number of people, for example, who find spreadsheets deeply exciting and captivating. They are well suited to accounting and they are welcome there. As long as they don’t try to co-opt me into their information bacchanalia, all is well in the world. Because it is not an activity or a job in itself that is boring or that makes you boring. It is your insistence on imposing its meaning on others who do not share your passion.
When we call others annoying, it’s either because we lack the imagination to understand what they get out of following the silver-cheeked hornbill, or because they chewed our ears off about something. something we just don’t care about. This whole exercise is reminiscent of the old joke: “How do you know if someone is vegan?” Don’t worry, they’ll let you know. We’re not necessarily intolerant of other people’s habits and lifestyle choices, but they don’t drive us crazy when they talk about them. My big surprise is that wild swimmers do not appear in this study. They are surely the most annoying of all. And I speak like one of them – though I promise to speak as little as possible.
I associate the word “boring” with my 1980s childhood thanks to the TV show Why not… ?, whose full title was: “Why don’t you just turn off your TV and do something less boring instead?” (Again with television bashing and this from an actual television program.) When I was a small child, I was repeatedly told, “There is no boredom, there only boring people.” The conclusion is clear: if you’re bored, blame yourself.
As I got older, I learned to embrace the opposite idea: that being bored and being boring are positive things. I’m not interested in mesmerizing everyone. If some people think I’m boring, then hooray. It will protect me from their attentions. And if I’m bored, that’s just as well. It will give me a moment to sit with my thoughts and maybe experience some kind of peace. Covid time has been a long embrace of boredom for many, deprived of our usual distractions, relationships and comforts. Boredom can be a luxury and a blessing. This is often better than the alternative: the vicissitudes of life.
How can any of us be sure to be less boring? The key is to avoid people who are so bored they can’t take the time to see past the stereotypes. Instead, why not think of being boring as a badge of honor? There’s something deeply satisfying about being so insufferable to others that they’d like to be paid £35 to put up with you. Boredom is in the eye – or even in the binoculars – of the viewer.