Home / Opinion / Columns /  How we survive bores and others probably survive us

In the film Banshees of Inisherin, a musician stops talking to his friend because he finds the friend a bore. Inisherin is a fictional but highly probable Irish hamlet on a desolate island inhabited by less than 50 people. Choice of human companionship here is narrow; the musician’s friend is a good man, who is famous in the village for his niceness, yet the musician is unable to endure another day of banter with him.

In the past few months, Banshees of Inisherin, which is written and directed by Martin McDonagh, has become one of the most admired films in the world. Not many may have complained when it got nine Academy Award nominations this month. It is as though people can see their lives in the film, surely as victims of bores and not as bores themselves. But then, most of us are both, depending on circumstances.

People develop techniques to avoid or endure bores. They also develop techniques to become interesting to other people, even though they may not regard themselves as dull. But nothing really works in the face of the most cruel conversational structure in human communication—the one-on-one, when two people are left alone in a cafe or bar, or in Inisherin. The problem is with the number ‘two’. A person is adjudged dull only in a one-on-one.

A conversation between two individuals is very different from all other forms of conversation. By now, you would have guessed that what these two people mean to each other is intrinsic to what I am trying to say. Two new lovers who can just gaze at each other like fools, or a father and daughter whose silences are not wounds or rebukes, are not relevant to this generalization. The full tragedy of the one-on-one emerges between acquaintances and sometimes even good friends, and of course spouses.

It is much easier to speak to a thousand people than to one person. A three-person conversation, too, is much simpler because you can stop talking any time and the conversation could still go on, and if there is silence, you do not have to take responsibility for it, and you can be amusing and perform for the world, even though the world is not present, just two of its emissaries. On the other hand, the one-on-one expects both parties to be interesting, a quality that most people in the world do not possess or possess only in a certain context.

This is why for social meetings, I have ‘the rule of three’, which is also the name of a writing principle that states that placing three characters in a scene is generally more interesting than two. I do this not only because I fear getting bored, but also because I want to protect the person who wants to meet me from me.

Maybe I have a lot to say to a thousand people and very little to say to just one person.

An important part of the film’s premise is that the nice man is fond of the musician; yet, the musician cannot stand him anymore. Usually, people don’t consider how they can avoid people who are fond of them. Or that they might be boring to their own friends and family.

Most people find the company of their friends interesting almost entirely because their friends like them. One way in which people reduce the dullness of dull company is by converting the affection of the dull into entertainment, mixed with some alcohol.

As a result, most people in the world have a huge capacity to endure small talk.

“What’s up?"

“Nothing. What’s up?"

We can endure friends who laugh at their own statements, who come to a conversation armed with knowledge of the eight articles they have read on blockchain, and who quote the philosophies of “zen masters". People also survive other people through our most enduring myth that good behaviour is more important than a good chat.

People exert pressure on others to be nice because they are terrified of rudeness, which takes us deeper into a person. We endure dullness because it can protect us from the depths of other people.

Now and then, like the musician, some people decide they have had enough of small talk, of the dullness of sweet inconsequential people. They therefore decide to break friendships and acquaintances. They even end marriages. Many marriages end because of dullness, but it is in the nature of spouses to claim grander reasons as though they are afraid the family court judge will laugh at them for ending a marriage because it is merely dull. But many divorces are actually proof that people can go to great lengths to end dullness.

When the musician decides to stop talking to his friend, the friend is aghast and starts hounding him, seeking a more respectable reason. Like, maybe the musician is dying? If everyone in the world were as honest as the musician with themselves, in seeing clearly why they wish to end a relationship with a person who likes them, the world would be filled with the lament, ‘you bore me, that’s all.’

Unable to bear the hounding of his friend, the musician makes a threat. If the nice man tries to talk to him one more time, the musician would chop a finger. Then every time the nice man tries to talk, one more finger would go.

People who walk away from the dullness of friendly banter, too, are prepared to endure pain. They become lonely, and may also suffer professionally. Success, one way or another, is a reward for friendship.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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