Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

How to Handle Bores

by John B. Sheerin, C.S.P.


In this unique article from 1950 John B. Sheerin discusses the proper way to deal with people one may consider annoyingly boring.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


11 – 15

Publisher & Date

Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., New York, NY, October 1950

The bore is a social problem. He can rouse more wrath than an array of mosquitoes. In times like these when our country is involved in war, we ought to be able to rise above our own personal discomforts, but yet it is precisely at a time like this that a boresome person is most annoying. It may be that the stirring drama of the daily battle-reports only serves to stress the dullness of the bore's conversation.

The technique of adjusting yourself to bores is quite a spiritual problem and daily becomes more so. In fact, more than one devout soul has abandoned the task as utterly beyond his strength. But I feel that the preacher ought to proffer to his bore-tried people a few hints on how to handle the bore. Never have I heard a sermon on bores, and seldom have I read in any spiritual textbooks specific recommendations on the treatment to be accorded by the charitable to these socially undesirable people. But surely a sermon on this subject is, to say the least, practical.

Laymen tell us of listening on Sunday to sermons that touched their lives at no point, whatsoever. One preacher spoke about the irrefutable logic of one of the early Fathers of the Church in his campaign against the Gnostics, while his congregation were as little concerned about the Gnostics as they were about the eating customs of the early Babylonians. Another preacher told of the levitations and revelations of a German nun who lived eight centuries ago. But a sermon on kindness to our tormentors is always timely, for bores are always with us, and I venture to say that every Christian of our day finds himself sorely pressed at times to restrain his temper in their presence.

Bores are Innocuous, not Obnoxious

If bores were more obnoxious in a concrete, physical manner, it would be easier to handle them. If they preached a subversive doctrine or tricked us in business or manhandled our person, we would know how to come to grips with them from a spiritual standpoint. If they stabbed us or calumniated us, we would simply remind ourselves of the lesson of Christ on the cross. We could form a mental picture of the crucifix and resolve to imitate Our Lord in pardoning those who had mocked and injured Him. Or perhaps we might conjure up the picture of John Gualbert meeting his relative's murderer in a narrow mountain-pass and throttling, not the murderer, but the hot fires of vengeance that seethed within him at sight of the culprit. The bore, however, is hard to deal with precisely because he is generally innocuous. He is not vicious, satanic. bloodthirsty, but only annoyingly dull. He is the man next to you at table who either contributes nothing to the conversation or else takes over the conversation as his own entertainment. The strong, silent type without glamour or the raconteur whose stories are as soggy as bread that has been out in the rain all night — either type is a bore.

To begin with, the Christian attitude towards the bore must be quite different from the attitude assumed by the good pagan. The man-about-town doesn't believe he has anything in common with the obnoxious blusterer who makes a dinner party unpleasant for all concerned, but the Christian does believe he has something in common with the bore — both have been equally redeemed by the blood of Christ. He presumes that the bore, for all his shortcomings, is living by the grace of Christ, and that therefore he is not some sort of an animal to be beaten down in the social jungle as a matter of course. The Christian believes this world is in a sorry state, and by "world" he means the people in the world, and he has firm conviction that it is his business to enlist the help of the healthy and the wealthy, the halt, the lame, the blind, and even the bores in mending the world, in restoring all things in Christ.

A Novel Psychography of the Bore

In Good Housekeeping magazine (August, 1950) there appeared an article by Jennifer Colton entitled "How to Handle a Social Villain." The author begins with the assumption that a bore is an egotistical person who doesn't care a fig for other people. He is a ruthless egomaniac in whose eyes other persons do not exist except to form a background for his remarks. She asserts that, since he is a disturber of the peace, we may properly consider him a villain and act accordingly. Such an attitude is designed not only to ward off annoyance, but also to remove one from the proximate occasions of annoyance; for if you consider a certain person a bore, and therefore a social villain, you will simply not invite him to your home.

Now, it just isn't true that a bore is a culpable villain, a conscious misanthrope who dislikes people. Some of the biggest bores I know have a genuine interest in other people, and, in fact, it is inordinate benevolence that causes them to "chew the ear off" their prey. They persist in carrying on conversation long after it has been exhausted, simply because they like companionship. They pry into the personal affairs of others with undue curiosity. We feel close to a person who inquires about our family's welfare, but we resent that degree of intimacy that may lead the bore to ask if the family refrigerator was bought on credit. So, I don't think we can exclude the bore from our social invitations on the ground that he loathes human beings.

Jennifer Colton proceeds, after disposing of the problem of the bore in your own home, to take up the question of the bore in someone else's home. What to do when you encounter him enjoying the hospitality of a friend? You cannot order him out, and you have to be genial to him out of deference to your host. The solution advanced by Miss Colton is ingenious: escape into your imagination! While you remain physically present, transport yourself into the world of fancy and make the bore the unwitting victim of some imaginative tricks. For instance, play a game of similes: is the bore's voice like a vacuum-cleaner or like a creaking wicker basket? While your imagination roams, you can still nod "yes" and "no" at appropriate intervals in the bore's conversation so that he will think you are listening to his monologue.

Strategy Recommended to the Bored

Such strategy is a bit too complex for the masculine mind. The author is somewhat more plausible when she suggests that you picture to yourself what might happen if you were to suddenly fall to the floor clutching your stomach, or if you were to start an entirely irrelevant conversation of your own. Another device she suggests is that of out-boring the bore. Fight him with his own weapons; repeat old political slogans ad nauseam, or tell him the bright remarks made by your cute little 3-year-old nephew last Sunday. Who indeed has not been tempted to out-bore the Liberal bore? When you hear an addlehead monopolizing the conversation with his profound observations on the need of "academic freedom," "democracy," "freedom from thought-control and witch-hunts" and similar fuzzy abstractions, you feel like smothering him under a barrage of your own double-talk.

However, these tricks of escape into the imagination are not only impractical but, I would say, un-Christian as well. It smacks too much of the Pharisee who believed that interior sins do not count, and that God only bothers with concrete, external offenses. I confess that I have sometimes wandered mentally while talking to a bore, but my attention was fixed on matters of importance and not on delusions of make-believe conquests over my tormentor. I felt that I was simply making the best of a bad situation in which the bore was intruding upon my time. But to purposely out-bore a bore is not the treatment that Christ would prescribe.

The author hits upon a happier line of strategy, as well as a more Christian line of conduct, when she recommends that we render the bore less boring by reminding ourselves of our own iniquities. Before we fume and fret inwardly in the presence of a certain bore, perhaps we might remember that we too have been bores on some occasion or other. Indeed, it was Our Blessed Lord who told us that we should first remove the big beam of lumber from our own eye before attempting to take the small cinder from our neighbor's eye. In other words, let us remember our own character defects and sins before we indulge in calumny or detraction against the neighbor. The same general advice runs through Christ's remark to the men who wanted to stone the woman taken in adultery: "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." Let him who has never bored anyone with the details of his last vacation trip, or with the ramifications of his own family tree, or with the exact words of his encounter with the policeman — let such a rare specimen of humanity cast stones at the bore.

Boredom May Arise from our own Shortcomings

And while we are thinking of our iniquities in boring people, we might also think of our possible shortcomings as the reason for our boredom. Maybe the conversationalist disturbs us, not because of any fault of his own, but because of our own ignorance. I remember attending a school in which certain non-Catholic students would give expression to their ennui as soon as any Catholic discussed a point of Catholic philosophy. No doubt the average high-school boy would be rather bored if he had to listen to Masefield reading his own poetry or to Rubinstein at the piano. In so many cases, the term "bore" is only a refuge of the stupid, an emotional criticism flung off by an unlearned person to cover up the appalling depths of his own ignorance.

Is Boredom Compatible with True Christian?

Jennifer Colton ends her article on a pleasant note. She wants to define a bore by its opposite, and so she describes a friend of hers who is never a bore. The resulting picture, it seems to me, is simply the description of a Christian who acts like a Christian. People like to listen to her because she herself is a good listener: she is sincerely interested in anything that anyone says. Her interest as a listener is so infectious that she seems to inject élan into all those who converse with her. She never bores because she is always in constant contact with her audience. Yet, her interest in them has dignity and discrimination.

Such a person is not some sort of a rare psychological type with infinite stores of natural interest in trifles. Such interest is the result of self-discipline and endless effort to adapt oneself to others, even the most irritating and repulsive of God's creatures. The world of philosophy and literature is tremendously impressed today by Schweitzer's philosophy of "reverence for life." Many of our contemporaries feel that in this day of mass-killing the German philosopher has unveiled the hidden secret of all ethics. Schweitzer will not even destroy the flies that harass him in his medical work in the jungles. Christian reverence for life, however, concerns itself more solicitously with reverence for the human personality than for the lower orders of life. One happy result of the worldwide fight against Totalitarianism may be an increased degree of respect for the rights of the human person.

Yet, this respect can never reach its summit except in the teachings of Christianity. For if we look at a man only as a man, we are bound to be repelled by certain natural defects, certain mannerisms or deficiencies that "rub us the wrong way." But if we consider the person as a child of God and a brother of Christ, then we can pass over the ungraceful features and penetrate to the core of his personality which bears the image of God and the life of grace. To be a genuine Christian in our social contacts is to be like St. Francis; Chesterton said that none could look into those brown, piercing eyes of the Poverello without being made aware that the Saint was interested in every moment of his life from the cradle to the grave.

Boredom Foreign to Christian Spirituality

If Christianity means anything at all, it certainly means kindness to the neighbor. Christian spirituality is built upon Christ's farewell discourse at the Last Supper as its keystone. We cannot say that His constant reiteration of the need of brotherly love was only a formula, or a vague ideal or a phenomenon, that would be needed only in the early Church, like the gift of tongues. Our religion is not built upon a fantasy, but upon the broad base of a very practical, homely virtue — kindness.

This does not mean that we must don rose-colored glasses and delude ourselves into thinking the bore is more glamorous than he is in reality. It means simply that we put our faith into action, and realize that we must be kind because Christ wants it that way. Moreover, by assuming human nature, Christ has elevated and transformed that nature, and He wants to continue the redeeming process till the end of time. In short, He came to give life and to give it more abundantly. Sin is the absence of perfection, and the state of sin is the absence of life. It is up to every Christian to extend the Kingdom of God on earth, to bring the warmth and color and fire of the Holy Spirit in place of the drab, gray wilderness of sin.

Bores as our Brethren in Christ

It would be overbold to say that Christ has come to give dignity and color to bores. But yet as Christians we feel that, in a world dominated by Christianity, human personality would reach new heights of development. Towards that end, we must strive to practise kindness in order to bring about a greater respect for the rights of personality. We are here, not to howl down bores, but to help them. Christ came not to destroy but to fulfill, and we are out to help the neighbor to a fuller and happier life. Moreover, we are looking for recruits in our work. We cannot build the celestial city alone. We are looking not only for helpers among the glamorous, brilliant, entertaining groups of humanity, but also among the dull and uninspiring. For, working side by side with the followers of Christ, the most woe-begone creature will take on life and color. We are the light of the world, the salt of the earth, the leaven in the mass, and surely it is the dull people who need this salt, this light, this leaven. Grace indeed builds on nature and the lacklustre of the natural becomes bright when irradiated by divine grace.

Finally, a word to those Catholics who seem to feel that there is no need of putting the faith into practice in social life. They claim that they are doing their part by attending Mass and receiving the Sacraments, and they will not defile their religion by making it a plaything of the living room or the reception line. To them, we can merely say that they have lost the whole significance of the sacramental system. For Christ devised the Sacraments, not as rewards of virtue, but as means towards the living of a good life. I receive Holy Communion in order that I may be kind to the neighbor: that is Christian spiritual life. Perhaps some day when the Gospel has been preached throughout the world, we shall finally arrive at the theology of St John: "God is Love."

© Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.

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