How do I deal with conversations I find boring?
October 28, 2005 1:19 PM   Subscribe

how do i deal with conversation topics i don't care about?

i've always had a huge problem feigning interest in topics that i really don't care about. it's not really that i'm lazy or quiet (although that certainly contributes to it), i'm always just kind of baffled when i have to talk to someone about a topic that i know nothing about.

how do you all deal with it when a friend gets really excited about a topic that you could honestly care less about? is there a polite way to say "please stop talking about that, i could care less"?

i suppose the possibility exists that i'm just a jerk, but i always feel really guilty when someone tells me something or draws my attention to something that they obviously find really interesting and all of a sudden i draw a blank on what to say, and just kind of stare. i feel like i'm letting them down or insulting them by not responding with enthusiasm. --and even if i manage to do that, i'm so bad at it that it invariably comes off as forced or disingenuous.

any suggestions?
posted by spiderwire to Human Relations (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Ask questions in order to figure out why the other person finds it interesting? You may surprise yourself by getting drawn into the conversation.

Really, I understand that not everyone shares my interests. The people who I like are the ones who at least make an effort to *try*. The people I stop associating with are the ones who just make assumptions about my views.

This may not apply if you have friends who are continually blabbering about a topic you've explored, found boring, asked them to stop talking about, and still find boring.
posted by occhiblu at 1:23 PM on October 28, 2005

Response by poster: i'm talking more about general commentary -- for example, a few minutes ago the person sitting across the table from me interrupted what i was doing (which admittedly was just reading metafilter, so not all that important) to point out two dogs chasing each other around the coffeeshop.

i don't really care about dogs. i mean, i liked my old dog, but dogs in general aren't interesting to me. and i fucking hate little yappy dogs like the two in question. but my friend thought this was really cute and was obviously expecting some sort of response.

nothing deep to talk about. no conversation to be had. i couldn't think of any questions to ask, but i didn't really know what to do besides stare blankly. what am i supposed to do?
posted by spiderwire at 1:27 PM on October 28, 2005

"Hmm. Interesting!" Then go back to reading Metafilter. How hard is that?
posted by scody at 1:33 PM on October 28, 2005

Do you have friends with that kind of attitude?

It's called taking an interest, and you might surprise yourself by what you learn.
posted by xmutex at 1:33 PM on October 28, 2005

Ah. I generally just give a tight smile and go back to what I'm doing. Unless it's a close friend, in which case I might mock the friend for pointing it out. But I don't think there's a general rule for what you're talking about.
posted by occhiblu at 1:33 PM on October 28, 2005

Also, you're allowed to roll your eyes and say "Stupid yappy dogs." I mean, if it's your friend, your friend presumably understands that you have a personality and likes and dislikes, and doesn't expect you to be ultra-bland nice all the time. You might get a reputation as a curmudgeon, but if that's who you are, then... that's who you are. Better than a cauldron of seething resentment.
posted by occhiblu at 1:37 PM on October 28, 2005

I hate little yappy dogs like the two in question

Well, you could say something like this (if you wanted to engage, or were with a friend; otherwise "Interesting" ore even less is the best response):

It's funny - a lot of people think small dogs are cute, but I really hate little yappy dogs like those.

You don't need to say that aggressively, just as a matter of fact. By doing so, you acknowledge the other person's feelings, and contrast them to your own. The other person is then free to say why he/she finds them cute, or ask you if you hate all dogs, or how long you've hated dogs, or even to change the subject.

Question: When you hate something, or think something is uninteresting, do you think that other people should also think that? That if they don't, they're somehow wrong?

And if they're not wrong to hold a differing opinion, might it be worth discussing (particularly if they bring it up) why your opinions differ?
posted by WestCoaster at 1:40 PM on October 28, 2005

You could try changing the subject to something you do find interesting. I have a friend who does that, in the middle of a conversation he'll sigh and say "In other news..." and bring up something he wants to talk about. The way he does it is kind of funny, we usually laugh. But my point is, your friend probably just wants to talk to you, the dogs (or whatever) are an excuse to do so. Stop ignoring your friend, look up from your computer, and engage them in conversation. The topic is less important than the fact that you're paying attention to them.
posted by cali at 1:44 PM on October 28, 2005

You are confusing an offhand comment about something someone momentarily finds interesting with an invitation to a deep conversation.

Your answer to the friend who points out yappy dogs because s/he thinks they're cute is, "Cute." That's it. Just validate his/her momentary feeling, you get on with your life.

I see this in places like department stores, where a wife will point out something in passing, and the husband seems COMPELLED to explain how he doesn't find find this even remotely interesting.
posted by sageleaf at 1:54 PM on October 28, 2005

I would recommend treating such situations like a talk show host. Be polite and add funny zinger in or two when you can (if approriate of course). Being able to talk to people who you find boring is an important skill that must be practiced.
posted by ozomatli at 1:58 PM on October 28, 2005

This is where "smile and nod" comes into play. It's a valuable skill. You will get a reputation for being a good listener and a tolerant, open-minded person instead of a jerk. You don't have to say anything.

If they force you into a discussion about something, make your opinions known all you like, but just "hey, look, yappy dogs!" deserves nothing more than a smile, nod, maybe a "Yep."

It's like "sure is hot today!"... is not an invitation to debate global warming, it's just a passing social ritual, a sort a verbal wave.
posted by Rubber Soul at 2:06 PM on October 28, 2005

It's all about connecting to other people. I'm not a huge people person and, like you, find it hard to take an interest in other people's conversation topics if they don't interest me. Conversely, my girlfriend just loves people and can build an instant rapport with anyone over anything. She can make friends with strangers in minutes because she genuinely likes other people regardless of what they witter on about. I am a jerk and generally nod, grin and give one word answers until I can make my escape. But I'm getting better! Just by trying to appreciate that another human being is feeling something enough to express it to me I find that making the effort with even the most mundane topic can lead to something interesting or at least quite a nice feeling of having shared with someone else.
posted by brautigan at 2:08 PM on October 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

I don't know, listening has always helped me become interested in a topic I had no previous interest in. It sounds to me though that you may just be a jerk. Not a bad thing really (the word itself has bad connotations but in this case, it's just the most convenient word for your particular mindset). Sometimes, people just place greater importance on their interests. I enjoy learning about new things though so it's easy for me to engage in conversations about things I couldn't care less about.

Also, smile and nod as someone noted is a valuable skill that you should move to acquire.
posted by panoptican at 2:34 PM on October 28, 2005

Yeah, how about those Mets?
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:39 PM on October 28, 2005

There are some things you can do, dependant upon where you are when the conversation takes place.

In your instance about the dogs, all that's socially required is that you acknowledge them speaking. A simple nod or an "uh-huh" should be sufficient. If there's an uncomfortable silence, change the topic of conversation (but without being obvious that you're doing it) to what you were doing before they started talking . Something along the lines of "Hey, there's this article on Metafilter which is really cool". You don't have to continue talking about dogs, it acknowledges that you're still interested in them, and shifts the onus of the continuing conversation on them.

I've had a similar problem at an old work place, where a person would walk into my office and start talking about anything that happened to be on their mind. I was usually honest, saying "I have no opinion on that topic one way or another". If they persisted, I would slowly stand up, maintaining eye contact with the speaker while they were talking, grab my coffee cup and slowly walk to the door. They always stood up with me and walked out of my office along with me, typically departing before getting to the coffee room, but sometimes after, and they never followed me back to my office.

Conversation isn't necessarily a social obligation. But acknowleding a person showing you attention in some form is. The trick is to get them to stop paying attention to you without hurting their feelings.
posted by AccidentalHedonist at 2:41 PM on October 28, 2005

just a thought but there's not law that says you have to be intertested in everything everyone wants to talk to you about. If the person interrupting you to tell you something you couldn't possibly care less about and you let them know by either ignoring them or making a comment (polite or not), then you shouldn't feel like a jerk. It's natural not to be interested in everything.

If you care about the person (ie friend, family etc ..) you could le them know how boring they're being. They should know you by now not to start conversations about which you won't want to discuss.

If you don't know the person, a sarcastic comment or just ignorind them is not out of line.

Why is it alright for them to push their comment/conversation/topic on you? but for you not to be interested in it?

On the other hand ... if you're having a conversation about something you know nothing about, then just listen and ask questions. If it gets boring give them the old "bored" signals....yawn, look away a lot, change the topic etc ...
posted by eatcake at 2:42 PM on October 28, 2005

Best answer: spiderwire, I suspect we're much alike. (And we have many "cousins" on MeFi and the geekworld in general). I'm an introvert (and possibly I suffer from Aspergers, but I'm embarrassed to say that, because everyone claims it nowadays). To me, the purpose of talking is to exchange information. I'm continuously baffled (even if I figure out what is going on after a few seconds) by strangers who tell me random details about their life. I'll be in a shoe store, and suddenly someone will catch my eye and say, "I just found a really cheap stereo system in the store next to this one."

My gut response it, "Why on EARTH would you think I'd be interested in that? I don't even KNOW you. And if I did, I STILL wouldn't be interested." (I even think this when I watch TV commercials. You know, the kind in which someone turns to the camera and says, "I used to brush my teeth with the leading brand of toothpaste, but I noticed that they never got as white as I'd like. So now I use..." I sometimes yell at the TV, "And I care, BECAUSE????") Of course, I don't say what I'm thinking, because I don't want to hurt the stranger's feelings.

Many people aren't like us. Many people communicate to show an interest in their fellow human beings. I guess this sounds horrible, but unless I'm in an anthropological mood, I'm generally not interested in strangers. I AM deeply interested in my friends, but with them, I tend to show my interest in literal ways. I say, "I like you"; I give hugs; I ask about specific things in their lives; etc. Even with them, I get confused when they spew random comments, just to connect. I am continually thinking, "Joe isn't interested in Photoshop, so I won't talk to him about that. But he IS interested in Movies, so I WILL talk to him about THAT." But most other people don't think that way.

I'm learning to get past my gut reaction. I've discovered that in these situations, it almost doesn't matter what you say -- as-long-as you show an interest in the other person. I mean that really literally. When someone says, "look at those dogs," you could probably get away with replying, "You know what's good? Pizza!" as long as you showed an interest in the other person as you were saying it (look into their eyes, really SHARE the information). This makes sense when words are used as tokens of affection, rather than as signifiers of specific objects.

So turn it into a game. With some people, try responding with something apropos: "I see you think they're cure. I guess I can't feel that way, because I don't like little dogs." Try non-sequiturs with others: "This place has great coffee, don't you think?" I bet you'll find it doesn't make much difference.
posted by grumblebee at 2:50 PM on October 28, 2005 [3 favorites]

you could probably get away with replying, "You know what's good? Pizza!" as long as you showed an interest

Grumblebee, I love that. From now on that's exactly what I'm going to say in these situations.
posted by tangerine at 3:09 PM on October 28, 2005

Response by poster: 23skidoo: There is no polite way to tell someone that you will only talk about things that you think are interesting.

perhaps i wasn't being clear; i didn't say i would only talk about things i find interesting, i said i wasn't good at it. stop being a troll.

rest of the commentary has been great so far; thanks.
posted by spiderwire at 3:12 PM on October 28, 2005

grumblebee: I'll be in a shoe store, and suddenly someone will catch my eye and say, "I just found a really cheap stereo system in the store next to this one."

Holy cow, I have an easy time making pointless random small talk with strangers, and even I'd be rendered speechless by that one. :)
posted by scody at 3:18 PM on October 28, 2005

There are two possibilities here.

1) (per cali) your friend probably just wants to talk to you, the dogs (or whatever) are an excuse to do so

If you think this might be the case, make some sort of grunt to acknowledge the dogs ("Huh!" will usually do), then start talking about what you were reading on MeFi (or whatever interests you at the moment). Conversation will ensue.

2) Your friend actually just wants to draw your attention to the dogs. In this case the first step above ("Huh!") will suffice; you can then resume your perusal of MeFi.
posted by languagehat at 3:39 PM on October 28, 2005

This reminds me of a bit that two radio DJs (Don and Mike, if it matters) perform every time they have a scheduled guest that they aren't interested in.

They take turns using the phrases "Isn't that something!" or "How 'bout that". The author or other quasi-celeb will prattle on, hawking their book/movie/tv show, and the DJs just repeat their phrases. They compete against each other to see who can say their phrase the most before the end of the interview.
posted by Wild_Eep at 4:19 PM on October 28, 2005

That reminds me of a long-ago David Letterman segment, entitled "That's Kind of Interesting." Said in a singsong voice, it's now become a sort of code in my family (particularly between me and my mom, strangely) for "oh, I'm not really interested [or: I don't want to get into a pitched battle over politics right now], so no offense but let's change the subject."
posted by scody at 4:29 PM on October 28, 2005

The secret, I find, is to be interested in the person if you can't be interested in what they're saying. If you care about the friend who is talking to you, you can feign interest, even if it's only of the 'yep, uh huh variety'. You can also listen to what they're actually saying, ask a few clarifying questions, and possibly learn to find the subject actually interesting.

But you also need to learn to tell the difference between conversations and throw away remarks. The dog thing is a throw away remark, make a throw away comment and move on. If the person is a stranger, you needn't even bother with the comment. Nobody expects a conversation in that context.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:52 PM on October 28, 2005

You could try this approach. "I pretend to give a shit because I care."
posted by Wet Spot at 5:12 PM on October 28, 2005

1) (per cali) your friend probably just wants to talk to you, the dogs (or whatever) are an excuse to do so

If you think this might be the case, make some sort of grunt to acknowledge the dogs ("Huh!" will usually do), then start talking about what you were reading on MeFi (or whatever interests you at the moment). Conversation will ensue.

Followup question: What if your goal is for conversation to NOT ensue? What if you really want to read MeFi in peace, and would like your idiot friend to shut the hell up?

Sure, I know the dismissive "meh," etc. - but that won't stop them from coming back 2 minutes later with "hey look at that guy in the funny shirt!" and then again for the cool car outside, "how about that weather?" etc. etc.

How do you (politely) get people to just shut up and leave you alone?
posted by rorycberger at 9:56 AM on October 31, 2005

rorycberger, some people don't understand the concept of being-in-a-public-space-yet-wanting-to-be-left-alone. I suspect they never will. I'm not berating them (or those who DO like to sit in Starbucks and keep to themselves). I think it's a case just two different types of people. But I suspect these social types will NEVER understand the non-social types. If you're VERY polite and say, "I'm so sorry. I hope you don't think I'm being rude. But I really want to be read this right now," they will STILL be offended. If you try a less direct tactic, it will probably backfire. For instance, if you move to another table, they will either get offended or follow you. They type of alone-ness you want (in a public space) is simple unfathomable to them.

I am basing this on my life experience. I pretty much always want to be left alone in public, unless I'm specifically out with a friend. I never am left alone. And I've tried EVERYTHING. I've tried directness and indirectness. I've tried closing myself off with dark sunglasses and huge headphones. Nothing works. (It doesn't help that I look friendly and unthreatening.)

So I think it's best to assume it's a Force of Nature. Asking to be left alone in a public space is like asking to jump in a pool without getting wet. You'll be happier if you accept the nature of the beast and live with it -- by which I mean structure your life around it. If you want to be alone, find a way to really BE alone. If you're out in public, accept the fact that people WILL talk to you. And by "talk to you" I don't mean just ask directions or say a few words. They may try to get into long conversations with you. They can not be rebuffed without offence. This is just the way things work.
posted by grumblebee at 10:20 AM on October 31, 2005

Best answer: I should note that after decades of dealing with this, I am changing my tactic. Now that I'm nearing 40, I realize that I've literally spent YEARS of my life dodging people in public. Just waiting for a bus is an irritating experience for me. I really want to stand there and read a book or listen to my iPod, but I am constantly having to deal with talking to strangers. Or I'm actively trying to avoid strangers. Or -- and here things get really silly -- I'm worrying about having to avoid strangers that MIGHT come on the scene. One way or another, I am not enjoying myself.

So I've decided to be more social. I've decided to take the plunge and join the rest of the human race and only be alone when I AM alone. I am going at this full force. I am not just receiving, I am giving. I am seeking out strangers and talking to THEM. This is totally against my nature, but I am trying to change my nature.

I am NOT doing this because I think it will make me a better person. I am doing it simply because my former method DIDN'T WORK. I lost the battle. And I'm tired of feeling anxious whenever I'm outside. I'm tired of hoping and praying no one gets in an elevator with me. That's just silly. Someone WILL get in. And I need to be able to deal with this without it making me cranky for the next hour.
posted by grumblebee at 10:27 AM on October 31, 2005 [2 favorites]

If I could, I would mark that as best answer, grumblebee.

i do not in any way mean to be a troll when saying this, spiderwire - in fact i'm saying it as a recovering introvert who feels a lot of familiarity in your question - but: get over yourself.

if it's uncomfortable to talk about things you know nothing about, the obvious answer is to learn more. luckily, these unwelcome "interruptions" are giving you the best opportunity to do just that.

they are also giving you an opportunity to practice ways to respond that won't make you feel guilty (putting in to practice much of the good advice that's come up here).

having been much of the same opinion as you for most of my life, i've come to realize that, actually, people are amazing, and, in the right light, so are their stupid little observations and interjections. each of them. they are also, at the same time, completely and absolutely full of shit. these two facts couldn't exist without eachother.

so put up with it. If they really do just want to point out the yappy dog, and nothing else, they require all of two seconds of your time: "Hey yeah - look at that."

but most of the time people aren't just pointing out the yappy dogs. it's not about the verbal information being exchanged, it's about two living bodies sharing a moment. they are trying to connect with you, or they are trying to express something meaningful about themselves and their experience of the world in a very roundabout and sometimes awkward way. or they are just trying to fill up a moment of loneliness or doubt or plain old boredom. or whatever. this is a precious opportunity to possibly discover some wonderful things. but yes, you have to play the game to do so.
posted by poweredbybeard at 7:28 PM on October 31, 2005 [1 favorite]

Perhaps you should think of it as a competition and try to say something even more useless back to them? Or out-talk them?
posted by Wild_Eep at 8:50 PM on November 7, 2005

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