Opinion: the problem with boring and boredom as descriptions is that they often relate to emotions that are not necessarily negative

The language we use to discuss books, TV, music and film points to certain foundational assumptions about what we expect from our media. Whether in whispers as the credits roll or in reviews written in later consideration, "boring" in its simplicity is one of the harshest and most definitive words we can use. Once we deploy boring, we are turning the text into an event: the minute-to-minute spent experiencing it. Boredom, after all, is not just a state of being, an emotion, but one which stretches the seconds under its sway into interminable lengths. Watched pots never boil and boring books seem never to end.

But boredom is a much more recent word than we may realise. While the idea of a bore (meaning a boring person), came earlier, Patricia Meyer Spacks' cultural history of the term finds the first mention as a mental state in the 1800s. The concept, she writes, was clearly new, and the word itself "smacked of fashionable jargon." She adds that those claiming to suffer from boredom were regarded as morally deficient.

This does not, of course, mean that people didn’t experience boredom prior to this, but rather that their way of describing that feeling was different. This is not insignificant, as language, along with its cultural and personal connotations, plays a large part in structuring how we understand our internal life. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, positive psychology lecturer Tim Loma on the necessity for such negative emotions as boredom

In relation to books that bore, French critic and intellectual Roland Barthes says that the author offers the reader a promise: they will do their best to interest them, and the reader tacitly agrees to allow themselves to be interested. An interesting read depends, then, on both parties holding up their end of the contract. 

This is what makes the accusation of "boring" such a double-edged sword. Your audience might decide it is not the text which is at fault, but the reader it found in you. If, for example, we describe a film as boring, but a friend goes on to praise its masterful parody of Scorsesian cinematic tropes, then what does that mean for us? Did we fail to rise to the challenge of the film? Did we misread it? Are we not well read or well watched? Or maybe it’s simply a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, and our friend has been duped into praising the gown of a naked monarch.

Any discussion of media is also a discussion of ourselves. When we praise something as intelligent or complex, we are placing ourselves in the aura of those words. However, describing something as boring can also be a method of complimenting ourselves, implying that the text failed to meet our lofty standards. 

From RTÉ Archives, Jo Maxi's Antoinette Dawson asks students, a theatre producer and a critic if Shakespeare is boring in 1990

To be bored can also be fashionable. Nerdy teens in coming-of-age films are often told to affect boredom if they want to fit in. Examples abound from the genre: 21 Jump Street, She's the Man, Mean Girls etc. Of course, the end-point of this trope is nearly always the same and affected boredom is revealed to be a juvenile reaction to the pleasure of others. 

The problem with boring and boredom as words is that they now have something of a monopoly over a family of emotions that are not necessarily negative. Boredom has a legion of synonyms: tedium, languor, torpor, lifelessness, monotony, apathy, dullness etc. The closest words we have to a pleasant boredom is perhaps contentment or peace. Yet, we are increasingly turning to forms of "enforced" boredom as retreats from modern life such as meditation, adult colouring books and the phenomenon of Slow TV. Boredom hardly seems a fair description of meditation, for example, but perhaps only because the word has unfairly become a magnet for negativity. 

The great fear of boredom seems tied up with the moral charge to be productive. In the 1800s, the immorality of boredom was often used to either villainize aristocratic indolence or the ostensible idleness of the working class. Today, our means of discussing entertainment are bound up with the same moral charge to be productive. We talk about being "behind" on a TV series, ask whether a book is worth the investment and add recommendations to lists (or avoid them entirely). The sheer wealth of media available to us has forced us to think strategically about how and what we consume. Meanwhile, entertainment forms such as podcasts, which can fit into previously "idle" time spent driving, walking or at the gym have surged in popularity. 

The great fear of boredom seems tied up with the moral charge to be productive

It is, then, perhaps telling that our reaction to this is often to avoid choice altogether, and rewatch or reread an old favourite. In choosing the familiar over the new, we are perhaps indulging ourselves in the comfort of pleasant boredom.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ