I'm specifically talking about the situation where you’re talking with a friend about an obscure shared interest — say, astronomy — and there’s a third person there, and you turn to them and say “sorry, this is probably really boring for you”.
I totally understand this impulse and I think it comes from a good, kind place. But what it says is, “I assume you’re not into astronomy.”
This assumption, in itself, is not great (and has the strong potential to stray into sexism — imagine the two friends are men, and the third is a woman, and the topic is in the STEM fields. Similarly women shouldn’t apologise for talking about traditionally feminine stuff in front of men, as though it’s automatically boring).
Further, even if the third isn’t also an astronomy nerd: a trait that I admire in people is the ability to be interested in a wide range of topics. Like, you don’t have to be an astronomy nerd to be interested in a few astronomy facts. There are some cool space facts that anyone would like to know!
So you’re saying both “I assume you’re not into astronomy AND I assume you can’t get interested in topics outside your personal interests.”
That last is a brutal thing to say about someone! I hope no one ever thinks that about me.
It gets even dicier if you say something like “ahh sorry, this is probably too nerdy for you” since a lot of people identify as nerds and would be hurt to be automatically excluded from that category (again, especially groups who have traditionally been excluded from nerd culture).
The way to include people in the conversation (assuming you’ve already assessed that it’s not something they are into) is to avoid using jargon, and give relevant context. (Like, why is it a big deal that the team lost? Have they never lost before? Was it a re-match with historical enemies? Etc). Any proper noun counts as jargon.
- Purely gossip level talk about mutual friends the third has never met and never will, although even this can sometimes be made interesting with enough context.
- If you know the third person well, and you’ve talked about astronomy in front of them a LOT, and they’ve made general bored sounds previously or jokes about how it’s all you ever talk about or whatever.
- The topic is just complaining/venting.
- Look I’m sure you’ve got some other exception, that’s fine, it can go here.
Please don’t feel like I’m saying anyone who’s ever bored by a topic is garbage. I personally am bored by astronomy even though it’s objectively interesting. I’m just saying don’t assume, and find ways to include people by changing your language instead of shutting them out by saying they’d be bored.
And lastly: this post isn’t trying to shame people or police them. I’ve learned social skills as I go, and I pass on the tips that are easy to apply, that I’ve found handy, in the hopes they’ll be useful to other people who also struggle to just pick up emotional intelligence automatically by osmosis.
This piece was originally published in The Whippet #15 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!
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