I can remember back in the 1970s when a girlfriend of mine, sensing my lack of interest in her very long and very detailed analysis of the lyrics of Bob Dylan suddenly said, ‘Am I boring you?’
Of course she was. And of course I denied it. Why? Because it was a hurtful and embarrassing thing to say to someone. Back then to be seen as boring was the verbal equivalent of having bad breath or body odour.
But today no one worries about boring other people — or being branded a bore. I know this because my intelligent and amusing friends are quite happy to just chug along, talking and tweeting about the most mundane of matters. I never knew how fantastically boring my fascinating friends could be. And that’s because we once did our best to hide our boring bits from each other. What happened?
I grew up in the bohemian world of Britain in the late Sixties and early Seventies. In that world you could be a drug addict, a transsexual, an alcoholic, a thief, a liar, a psychopath — or all of the above — and no one would bat an eye. However, to be a bore was met with moral disgust.
Being a bore could actually get you barred from a pub, as my father discovered when in the 1980s he was ejected from the Coach and Horses — yes, the one made famous by The Spectator’s Jeffrey Bernard — by its then landlord Norman Balon on the grounds that my dad was a bore.
We used to mock the Great British Bore in this country. He — and it was usually a man — was satirised in the pages of Punch and ridiculed in Private Eye’s ‘Great Bores of Today’ column. Ex-colonels, bank managers, stockbrokers were archetypal British bores. The critic Alan Brien wrote his own list of Bores of Britain in The Spectator in 1963: ‘Salesmen are bores. Beautiful women are bores. Charming men are bores. So are a great many judges, editors, schoolmasters and lecturers. Sick people are bores. So are all stars of stage, screen and television. So are most men of power — presidents, generals, millionaires. Do-gooders are bores.’
Today it’s rare to hear public figures dismissed as bores. Harold Macmillan once called Sir Keith Joseph ‘the only boring Jew I’ve ever met.’ No one would say that about Ed Miliband. We use the term nerdy or geeky in place of boring — but both terms are backhanded compliments for they imply a talent for things numerical or technological.
The concept of the bore is disappearing because the criteria by which one got branded a bore no longer carries any weight or authority. In a Britain where intelligent, educated, middle-class people go on line to post pictures of their cats and tell you what they had for breakfast and what cute things their kids said, what counts as boring any more?
At the very heart of British social life was an unwritten but widely accepted social contract whose main clause was this: I will try not to bore you, and you will try not to bore me. (Of course, it would happen on occasions but it didn’t really matter because we had that basic agreement.) To avoid boring your friends and fellow citizens, you were expected to edit out the boring bits of your life — the humdrum events of domesticity, the demands of daily routines, the mini-dramas of parenthood — from your conversation.
That was before the rise of social media. Back then, if you didn’t have anything interesting to say, you didn’t say anything. But social media abhors silence. It demands a constant flow of comment and postings. And people are afraid that if they don’t tweet or blog regularly they will simply go off the social radar and become invisible.
So in desperation even intelligent, thinking people will turn to the trivial and mundane bits of their lives — the very stuff they would have never mentioned in public for fear of appearing boring — and use that.
This passion for going on about the trivialities of our private lives is routinely diagnosed and denounced by critics of social media as a new wave of cyber-narcissism: the ‘Fascinating Me!’ phenomenon. That’s true of some people. But the great appeal of online life is that it offers a form of social liberation. The online you is free from the off-line pressure of having to be witty, entertaining or interesting in social situations.
You don’t have to perform. You can let your online self just slob out and say anything that comes to mind. In cyberspace no one can hear you being boring — because no one cares about being a social wow. And when we meet face to face, friends and I no longer try so hard to be on what is called ‘good form’.
Another reason for this change has to do with the newfound cultural confidence of Britain’s middle class. In the 1970s middle-class life was considered by many — novelists, commentators, artists etc — to be boring. Suburban life, the soulless job, the grind of the daily commute, the dull dinner parties, 2.4 kids — these were the common clichés that characterised middle-class life. And no one was as convinced of the boringness of the middle class as the liberal, metropolitan middle class themselves. ‘To be middle class is to be boring,’ the Observer columnist Sue Arnold once wrote.
But not now. Middle-class life is no longer seen as synonymous with boringness; it’s aspirational. The middle class are now confident that what they do in their kitchens and how they decorate their homes and what they serve at dinner parties and their holiday experiences and what the family pets have been up to is worth sharing with everyone else.
Consequently, the middle-class people who once despised the whole ethos of reality TV have decided to live online as if they were the stars of their own reality TV show. They share the most ordinary and mundane stuff and, just like the stars of reality TV, they never stop and wonder: am I boring you?
Yes you are, but it’s OK. We all do it now. And it has its benefits. As someone plagued with trying to be funny or interesting all his life, it’s a great relief not to have to try so bloody hard. I have got in touch with my inner bore — and he wants to come out and meet yours.
Cosmo Landesman writes for the Sunday Times and was among the founders, along with Toby Young and Julie Burchill, of the Modern Review.