Boring people bore you with what they say and how they say it

Bella DePaulo
Photo by JC Gellidon on Unsplash

I wonder if there is anyone who has ever not worried about being boring. Maybe people so full of themselves that it never occurs to them that they could be anything but fascinating to the people around them. Or maybe people who really are fascinating, and know it.

What we don't need to wonder about is what makes people come across as boring. There is systematic research on that.

In a series of studies, social psychologist Mark Leary and three of his colleagues found that we can bore other people either by what we have to say or how we say it. Content and style both matter. They also found that we are probably right to fret about whether other people might be judging us as boring, because if they are, they are likely to be judging us harshly on many other qualities as well.

The most boring things that boring people do

In the first set of studies, the researchers asked people to describe things "that other people do that make them seem boring to you." Then they made a list of the 43 kinds of things mentioned most often, and asked several hundred more people to rate how boring they thought those behaviors would be. They came up with nine categories of boring ways of behaving.

Starting with the most boring, they were:

1. The #1 most boring way of behaving was what the researchers called "negative egocentrism" – "being negative and complaining, talking about one's problems, displaying disinterest in others"

2. Banality – "talking about trivial or superficial things, being interested in only one topic, and repeating the same stories and jokes again and again"

3. Low affectivity – showing little enthusiasm, speaking in a monotone, engaging in very little eye contact, behaving in a very unexpressive way

4. Tedious – "talking slowly, pausing a long time before responding, taking a long time to make one's points, and dragging conversations on"

5. Passivity – having little to say, not having any opinions, being too predictable or too likely to try to conform with what everyone else is saying

6. Self-preoccupation – this one is obvious: talking all about yourself

7. Seriousness – coming across as very serious, rarely smiling

8. Boring ingratiation – "trying to be funny or nice in order to impress other people"

9. Distraction – doing things that interfere with the conversation, getting sidetracked too easily, and engaging in too much small talk

What interesting people contribute to conversations that boring people don’t

In the next set of studies, people were videotaped as they engaged in conversations. Then other people rated them for how boring they were, and the researchers painstakingly coded the kinds of things they said in the conversations.

Here are a few of the ways the boring and interesting people behaved differently:

1. Interesting people disclose more of their thoughts and feelings than boring people do. (This, apparently, is different from just talking about yourself all the time.)

2. Interesting people also contribute more information to the conversation (not just emotions) than boring people do.

3. Boring people use more empty words and they say things that don't mean much – for example, saying "uh-huh" to agree with other people, and not much else.

4. Boring people also contribute less to the conversation overall than interesting people do.

Boring people are judged more harshly in all sorts of ways

In the last study, Leary and his colleagues showed people video clips of people who were especially boring or especially interesting (as judged by their peers). Without telling the people viewing the tapes who was considered boring or interesting, the researchers just asked them to rate the conversationalists on many different attributes.

Wow, did the boring people get nailed. They were judged more harshly than the interesting people in nearly every way. For example, they were liked less, they were assumed to be less popular, they were judged to be less friendly and enthusiastic. They seemed harder to get to know. They were even denigrated on attributes that don't seem so obviously relevant to being boring or interesting: for example, boring people were judged less likely to be strong or secure or a leader. On only two of the 18 attributes were the boring and interesting people judged as equals: they were both seen as similar in their reliability and their competence.

There was, though, one significant way in which the boring people were judged more positively than the interesting ones. People thought they were smarter.

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Expert on the profound rewards of single life. Author of “Singled Out.” Popular TEDx speaker. Harvard PhD.

Summerland, CA

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