by Paul B. Hertneky
Throughout the years, I have bored nearly everyone I've met. I can't be certain of this, because most people are too polite to tell me. I suspect misplaced curiosity attracts them to me in the first place and I will happily lavish attention on anyone who shows the slightest interest in me.
In my thirties, after enduring several wrongheaded career choices and winding up on remote farm, I decided to pour my energies in getting paid to write. At social gatherings I couldn't bring myself to tell people I was a writer, at least partly because the image carried too much intrigue, sure to make me a disappointment. Also, like saying I was a consultant, it sounds like a lie or a jobless delusion. I live, however, in the United States of Achievement, where the opening gambit for most conversations is: So, what do you do?
I convinced myself that I could avoid that question. Prior to any kind of reception or dinner party, I would remind myself that, if I were bound to bore people, I would bore them with silence. Unfortunately, I'm not the quiet type. So, I resolved to satisfy my own curiosity and ask questions, regardless of how uninteresting their answers might be. Besides, I needed material and I could practice discipline and creativity in order to learn about others.
I had help. My wife is naturally reserved, and she finds a conversational approach reliant on inquiry somewhat comforting, in that it directs attention away from herself.
I remember scenes like this: Getting a drink from the bar and helping myself to snacks and dip when another dipper smiles, says hello with a mouthful, then introduces himself. We shake hands and I immediately ask him why he thinks the dip is so tasty. It’s blue cheese, and I ask if he's always had a taste for blue cheese or was that something that he developed as an adult. He tells me about France. Then about Germany. His fiancé introduces herself; I revive France; she confesses her perfume purchase; I sniff her ear and inquire about the wedding date, introduce my wife, we're charmed, they are thrilled to tell all about everything. After a few similar exchanges, we get our coats while the host and hostess tell us how much everyone enjoyed us. They know nothing about us. We couldn't be happier.
A few months later, after moving to another state, my wife found a new job and I had "writer" printed on business cards. We encountered new acquaintances, but stuck with our social strategy of revealing little about ourselves and, instead, sharpening our inquiries. I found that most people—the more self-absorbed the better—were capable of talking at length if asked just the right question. I cased the chit-chat for an understated intrusion that would spill guts all over the floor or give the someone a chance to hold forth. "What do you think your in-laws expected when they first met you?"
My approach became more and more reflexive and, after a couple of years of seeing the same people at similar gatherings, I remained unknown. They wanted to hear something about me but I wasn't offering much. I became boring to them.
Why didn't they ask? Very simple: they were usually too busy talking about themselves and time ran out. But, being New Englanders, they also didn't want to pry. Still, I could volunteer more about myself. It's not like I'm an agent of the government. But I was trying to hack out a living, the details of which I found workaday and I was reluctant to run the risk of boring anyone.
My strategy may have backfired. Such repression has made me worse among true friends and voluntary listeners. I am most boring when I lose awareness of their yawns and fidgeting, when my curiosity evaporates, and when I'm tipsy. Often I inflate the interest of my listeners with the hot air from my ego—surely they will find my analysis of underclass nutrition fascinating. I misjudge their tolerance and they float away. It is most apparent when I teach, having interpreted my students' tuition as a price happily paid to hear me spew.
When I am nervous and infatuated with someone, my questions fall to a level of tedium usually reserved for exchanges with toll booth attendants. When I feel comfortable and sense my conversation partner feels comfortable, I may appear to be charming, but this will wear off. Wear down, in fact. I will not upset her or disappoint her suddenly, since that would be crass or daring, not boring. Slowly, where she once laughed, I would struggle and come up silly or obtuse. She can thank God I don't pun. Once the first few tricks die off, there are no more surprises. And she just waits for it to stop.
But it must go on, because that's the nature of boredom. It takes one to the wall. "I was ready to scream!" I've heard people say. I wish they would say it at the time. I only need to be told. Other bores must feel the same. Gyrating in something of a fugue, we hope to regain our listeners' long-departed interest through even more yammering.
"Am I boring you?" a budding poet asked me recently. Caught glancing past her ears at the activity around us, I should have answered honestly. I lied instead. I had been distracted, that's all, just as she revealed her secrets for reaching the metaphysical plane on which she writes her poems.
Am I boring you? A simple question I should learn to ask. I wonder how many honest answers I would get? Can you imagine Wolf Blitzer asking it on the air? A frightening question, to be sure. "Do you still love me?" "Was it wonderful for you, too?" Only one answer is acceptable. But it also sounds like a question a polygrapher would ask, just to see the needle fly.
Although I would like to be told the truth, I usually already know. It would simply confirm my anxiety. Why must I tell all of this? Why must I show snapshots to my family every time I return from a trip? How interesting can pictures be when you know you're not in them? Yes, they have expressed interest. But, interest, per se, need not be expressed for me to get going. It can be implied.
Merely appearing at my doorstep can be enough. In the course of my day, I am likely to bore the butcher, the postman, and the FedEx guy. When I was a child, I waited for the driver of the bakery truck to arrive every day. At first he found me amusing, but soon he showed he was simply astonished that a child could articulate so little so well. I practiced repetition and over-elaboration while following him from house to house.
For reasons I cannot explain, my wife bears up well under the ether of tedium. Her introversion makes her intriguing and, fortunately for me, her grace and wit elicit social invitations I would never see without her. One of the stickiest social burdens lies in the duty of inviting both partners when only one is worth having. How many friends could she have if she were single or married to the anesthesiologist she used to date? But I am nearly as lucky as I am boring, and my wife is generally content to sit quietly at home. If only she could.
I bore her most soundly at the breakfast table. Having risen early, my mind already swirls with mediocre thoughts and plans. She would like to ease into her day but I flog her with cockamamie theories regarding such things as the effect of high winds on mental health. I sometimes catch myself and shift the focus to her by asking her an irrelevant question she has no interest in answering. I reminisce about and share meditations on marmalade.
I have always had an ear for the dull and flat, with memory to spare. I remember the size of the tires on all the cars I've owned, and I can recite the ingredients in Lipton's Onion Soup.
Indulging, as I do, in irrelevance, I expect my listeners to be inattentive. But I insist that I can teach them something, even if they don't care. By overestimating my intelligence, I underestimate theirs. That is why I must elaborate and illustrate points repeatedly, trying to see how I can get through to them.
At times I find it helpful to consult the wisdom of the sages, if only to show off and add another voice. Voltaire wrote, “The way to be a bore is to tell everything.” I could go on, of course.
Causes Paul Hertneky Supports
Monadock Area Transitional Shelter
Monadnock Humane Society
The Harris Center for Outdoor Education