At some point in my Pollyanna, patronising teenage years, I can remember making a pact with myself never to think of another human being as "boring". The reason for this edict was partly a desire to be "a good person". But it was also a challenge – if I really wanted to be an actor, if I believed I could get into the head of different characters, then I had to be able to see them as they saw themselves. And surely nobody in the dark privacy of their own skull really thinks of themselves as boring. As the years have gone by, I've tried to maintain this belief, but I can't say it's been without its challenges. Listening to interminable descriptions of contra-flow systems on the Newbury bypass, or "why we went for the cream tiles with the white grouting in spite of the fungal spore damage", it hasn't always been easy to remember that boring conversation is not a symptom of a boring mind. It is, in fact, a symptom of a mind that finds itself so interesting, it cannot imagine that its every thought and experience wouldn't enthral the rest of the world. (And as a columnist, I should know).
But it's not enough simply to substitute the damning judgement "that person is really boring" for the more sympathetic "that fascinating person tells a bloody dull anecdote". If you believe that everyone has a story to tell, or has an enlightening opinion on some aspect of the world, then you are duty bound – no matter how long it takes – to find it.
This may help to explain why, when the decorative lights are put away and the Christmas tree sent off for recycling last week, I breathe a sigh of relief that the festive social whirligig is over for another year. Parties, you see, are the frontline in my self-imposed boredom battle. Pinned against a cutlery drawer being talked at by a systems analyst from Billericay, the gauntlet is down for me to find what makes that analyst sparkle, and I simply have to pick it up.
There are two types of people who are brilliant at small talk. The first type profess total ignorance of the subject, thus simultaneously flattering you into feeling superior, and opening the way for you to talk further. If they were up against the cabinet with the aforementioned systems analyst, they would say something like: "You'll think I'm terribly ignorant, but I don't know what a systems analyst does..." And the analyst, while helpfully offering up an explanation, might just let slip something more intriguing, such as: "I joined Essex Web Solutions when I lost my vocation for the priesthood" – and, bingo, you've cracked it.
The second type is the sort who knows a little about a lot of things, and can therefore always come up with a supplementary question. My husband is one of those, and it never ceases to amaze me. We were once on a long cab journey in Yorkshire with a driver who, while I would naturally never say he was boring, nevertheless lacked, shall we say, rhetorical diversity. After the first 10 minutes of moaning about traffic and drunken passengers and mean tippers, I zoned out and looked at the view. When I zoned back in again, my husband had engaged him in a debate about minicab licensing legislation, a subject on which he, my husband that is, turned out be surprisingly well-informed. I've heard him do the same with builders, doctors, chefs, estate agents and someone who ran a Buddhist retreat.
How the hell he has managed to absorb facts about all these areas when he never appears to read anything other than the sports pages is beyond me, but it's damned impressive.
I, alas, conform to neither of these types. Try as I might, my responses to the systems analyst will rarely go further than: "Gosh. Right. Systems. That must be... I mean... and do you work in Billericay?" Couple this with a reluctance, born of years of teasing by my husband, to talk about my own job, lest he should catch me out just as I'm nearing the punchline of a well-worn theatrical anecdote, and you'll see what a parlous conversational state my analyst friend and I are in. It's not that I don't listen; I honestly do, very attentively. It's more that I'm so paranoid that someone might think I'm finding them boring, that I encourage them to talk about the same thing for far too long while maintaining an appearance of monosyllabic idiocy.
On the plus side, many systems analysts now have in their conversational armoury at least one sure-fire anecdote, about the time they got stuck with some actress at a party, and my God, was she boring...