Written by Hannah Keegan
Hannah Keegan is Stylist’s Deputy Features Editor. You can find her on Twitter at @HannahKeegan.
Keir Starmer has gone to lengths to prove he’s not boring, despite claims from his shadow cabinet. So why does this insult sting so much? Stylist investigates.
If you happened to be watching Prime Minister’s Questions this week, you would have seen the Labour leader Keir Starmer attempt a mildly mortifying, out-of-character show of humour. “He’s game playing so much he thinks he’s on Love Island,” he said, a grin from ear-to-ear, referring to Boris Johnston,the prime minister. “He thinks he’s Obi-Wan Kenobi; the truth is he’s Jabba the Hutt.” There were no laughs. The comments came following news that Starmer’s shadow cabinet thought of him as “boring”, a view he seems to have taken very much to heart, reportedly asking his colleagues to stop it immediately.
Unsurprisingly, his attempt at damage control hasn’t helped much. “Don’t think Keir has gone far enough to show us he isn’t boring, I think he should rap next, maybe wear a little costume too,” the political journalist Marie Le Conte tweeted, to which Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, responded with a swift insult directed Starmer’s way: “Notorious B.O.R.E.” Playground name-calling, sure, but for Starmer, who is focused on increasing his chances of becoming our next PM, it’s a serious charge. Boring means basic, lacking vision, non-votable. His predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, provoked furore and debate, at least. He was loved. He was hated. He was not, god forbid, boring. Boris Johnson, similarly, manages to keep the public entertained despite his general incompetence.
But it isn’t just politics: being seen as dull is an insult that stings even the thickest of skin, and it’s something we view harshly in others. On TikTok, the concept of a love interest having “beige flags” (as opposed to red) has recently taken off in a viral video where a woman shares her top five, which include having an opinion on whether pineapple belongs on pizza or if chocolate should be kept in the fridge. “It’s not important,” she says, half laughing, half exasperated. “No one cares.”
Indeed, the threat of being deemed boring can make us behave differently. There are times I’ve stayed out later than I wanted to appease friends’ protests to not be “boooring” and instead “have a tequila”. Obviously, I obliged. Evenings where I’ve judged myself for not going out in favour of doing something more mundane, such as waking up early to go for a swim (I can hear you yawn just reading that) or cook or paint or anything a bit, well, ordinary. Shamefully, there have also been occasions when I’ve met someone and, after being around them for no longer than 20 minutes, wondered how quickly I might exit the conversation and forget their name because they’d bored me. Yet, people obsessed with making their presence felt in a room – in an I Am Fun And Interesting And Watch Me Prove It kind of way, stinking of faux charisma – are often the most irritating of all. It’s as boring as being a wallflower. So, it’s a balancing act.
What makes someone boring isn’t universal either. “The most boring thing to me is when a person constantly talks about themselves,” says Catherine, 27. “I can feel my eyes glazing over just thinking about it.” For Sarah, 25, it’s when someone is deeply invested in their work and fixed on telling you about it. “I don’t care how interesting your job is, just shut up about it and bring some lols,” she says. There are also those odd moments when we want to like someone but find ourselves strangely depleted in their presence. “It’s hard to define, but it’s when that spark isn’t there and there’s nothing you connect on,” says Kate, 31. “I went on a date with a guy recently – the chat was all right and he was good-looking, but I left feeling underwhelmed. It just was a little bit boring, I guess.”
According to Dr Audrey Tang, a psychologist and author of The Leader’s Guide To Resilience, it’s the lack of specificity that gets under our skin. “Boring is a non-word; it has no real meaning,” she explains. “Because what does it mean to be boring? It’s incredibly subjective and the consequence of that is it strips you of an identity – it’s that feeling of dismissal that wounds us. We all want to be cared about and make an impact in the world and that speaks to something more fundamental about our human nature – it’s a desire for belonging and to be noticed. As children, this is expressed in ways as simple as throwing a toy out of the pram; we learn to behave in ways that garner us attention, and when a person doesn’t comply with this – as an adult, it can take the form of being funny or loud – we sometimes see them as boring.”
Our dismissal of bores as one homogeneous group rings true: a study from The University of Essex that came out this year and was published in the Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin, found the people we class as most boring are accountants, data analysts and everyone who works in insurance – while journalists, scientists and those in the performing arts were deemed the least boring. Entirely ignoring the fact that there are accountants out there who are far more interesting than journalists. “Perceptions can change but people may not take time to speak to those with ‘boring’ jobs and hobbies, instead choosing to avoid them,” said the researchers.
Savannah, 26, knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of this blanket appraisal. “I was out one night clubbing during uni, but I’ve never been someone who loves clubbing – and I also get exhausted quite quickly due to health issues,” she says. “ I was sitting down in the drinks area while my other friend was dancing away nearby. One of the boys in the group turned to me and said: ‘This is why you need to be single, so you can be more fun like Ella.’ It always stuck with me as an example of how there is some sort of link in people’s minds between attractiveness and being ‘wild’, ‘fun’ and ‘energetic’, and how quickly you can be judged for not coming across as such,” she adds. “It stung.”
Interestingly, Tang points out a theory known as ‘the halo effect’ (coined by the American psychologist Edward Lee Thorndike), which dictates that when we find someone charismatic or attractive we are much more likely to imbue them with other positive qualities such as kindness or generosity, even when they’ve shown us they are are not. “The opposite of this is the horn effect,” she says. “And it means that when we notice a negative quality in someone, we are much more likely to think of them in other negative ways too. So suddenly, someone who is boring is thought of as dishonest or mean-spirited, too. And we make these assessments subconsciously.”
For Lisa, 35, avoiding the tag of boring has been a life-long quest. “The thought of someone thinking I’m boring is like drinking a cup of cold sick,” she says. “And it probably stems from when my life was boring, thanks to growing up on an isolated farm. I didn’t realise how much I’d internalised the concept of boring being a bad thing until I complained to my sister that I found our older brother’s life incredibly dull because his family don’t do much outside the house. She quickly gave me a reality check: he is busy with small children and he’s happy, so why did I care? Now, I’ll always remember that one person’s boring is another person’s idea of bliss.”
Noticing when we’re making these snap judgements, then, and questioning them is probably sensible. As the writer Viv Groskop recent put it: “When we label others as boring, it’s either because we lack the imagination to understand what they get out of tracking the silvery-cheeked hornbill or it’s because they chewed our ear off about something we’re just not interested in.” In essence, it’s our own narcissistic fixation on our interests and our values and the thing we find stimulating that leads us to dismiss those that don’t share this lens on the world.
When it comes to Starmer, a man who (if he’s lucky) could be tasked with one day running the country, we shouldn’t be seeking buffoonery or controversy or entertainment. It’s usually these types who, away from the chuckles of an audience, crumble under close examination anyway. Bore on.
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