The Power of Boredom

Posted by

When you move to a new country there are many differences that present themselves easily and directly. For example, you learn how a culture self identifies by the questions they present to new acquaintances. Americans self identify by their jobs; Mongolians by if and how many babies one has; and Turks identify themselves by where they/their family is from.

Other differences take time to reveal themselves. I recently had what I shall call a cross cultural epiphany. I am a bit embarrassed to say this realization took more than five years to surface. It was always there, but it was during this school year (my sixth working in the country) that I learned about its power.

As a small child my older sister and I used to catch a ride to school with Mr. Smethurst. He was a close friend of our parents, and a teacher at the school. In this memory he asked me about something to which I replied that I had been bored.

“Only boring people are ever bored,” he replied.

I don’t remember ever saying I was bored again. Being a boring person seemed like one of the worst possible things to be.

This was a formative/impactful exchange for me. Its power has remained ever-present in my life for decades. Because his statement caused a change in my behavior and thinking, I have repeated the comment to children and young adults whom I hear say that they are or were bored.

Additionally, I would say that plenty of adult Americans ARE bored–when attending meetings, neighborhood events, or even family events. Like people all over the world, we attend and participate in events out of duty or obligation. It is not where we want to be, nor whom we may wish to be spending time with. But we never say we are “bored.” Instead we talk about the disorganization, our busy schedule, how poorly we slept the night before, or even about feeling unwell (whether it is true or not). We offer a barrage of excuses for our lack of engagement or interest in any particular event. When actually WE ARE BORED. We think or feel it, but never say it and opt to cover it up with another word, phrase, or explanation. (If you agree or disagree on this point, please feel free to comment below.)

Then I moved to Türkiye and discovered a new relationship with “boredom.”

From time to time my Turkish colleagues and friends, while in conversation, would ask if I was bored when discussing various events. The reference never seemed spot on and I made the assumption that there wasn’t a perfect word in English to represent what they were feeling. I dismissed “boredom” and decided they must have meant something else. But years have come and gone and I still hear any of the following on a regular basis:

  • “I was so bored.”
  • “Weren’t you bored?”
  • “It was so boring, we left.”
  • “We were bored.”
  • “It would have been boring, so we didn’t go.”

Being raised and domesticated in America created, for me, a negative connection with the word boredom and the act of being bored. I never wanted to say I was bored.

But Türkiye has offered a refreshing new understanding and relationship with the experience of boredom.

Over my years of time here, and time spent learning Turkish, I began to often hear conjugations of the verb “sıkılmak” which means “to be bored.” Most frequently I hear Turks say in conversation, “çok sıkıldım” which means, “I was so bored!” And then invariably I would also be asked, “sıkıldın mı?” Which means: “were you bored?”

I think most humans experience boredom and are bored from time to time. But as I mentioned previously, Americans provide an excuse or explanation instead of stating the truth–that we/they are bored. For example, a parent attends a school function in which their child will perform. The child’s performance is three minutes long, but the event might be two hours or more. Parents want to see their child perform, but the rest of the performance is “boring.”

My understanding of what boredom signifies for Turks has offered two very powerful exchanges to occur. One in my professional life, the other in my personal life.

As a high school librarian it is my mission, and joy, to teach students information literacy skills. Our ninth grade students complete an Academic Research Unit in which they select a topic they are interested in that connects to major themes in one of the texts they have read across the school year. Almost ANY topic can be connected–so it is allows the students agency.

I teach the students about expanding and narrowing their research focus, and about the power of keywords when searching Google and our databases to find primary and secondary sources. I have done this lesson numerous times, but this year I was able to connect with the students on a deeper level because of my knowledge and understanding of the importance they place on NOT being bored. While part of my job is to instruct in English, I can say that I occasionally throw in my knowledge of a Turkish word or phrase. This allows them to see my attempts to assimilate into and my appreciation of their country, language, and culture.

While conducting the lesson this year, I said to each class of students the following, “if you are bored doing the research for YOUR project, then I can guarantee that your reader will be bored reading your paper.” The students smiled or even laughed a little when I referenced “sıkılmak” which confirmed for me that we had connected. And I hope they understood the bottom line. We (teachers) do want them to pursue those topics and interests which they are passionate and most curious about.

In my personal life I learned how powerful it can be when you tell someone that boredom has you in its grips.

I had attended an evening event at my school. I was tired and it was difficult to hear the students in the auditorium. Some aspects of the performance were confusing and I wasn’t able to follow the storyline. I found myself restless and ready for the event to be over–but it went on for nearly two and a half hours (not to mention it had started late!). My (Turkish) boyfriend was planning to stop by afterwards for a drink and spend time chatting and connecting. While I walked home I messaged him that I was on the way home. I wrote “it was so boring,” that I wanted a beer, and directly wrote, “Gel” which means “Come.” I saw that he was typing something, but after some time passed I only received an “ok” in reply.

He arrived shortly thereafter and we sat on my terrace drinking beer and talking. He explained that he had been nearly home to his apartment and was in the process of writing that he was tired and would go to sleep, and that we could meet the next evening.

But upon receiving my “boring message” as he referred to it, he immediately deleted what he had typed, turned around, and came to my apartment. Apparently “boredom” can be considered a “red alert” in this country. I am glad to have made this realization and will only use it IF and WHEN necessary.  🤣

In this life, it can be powerful to un-learn some things and to overwrite or rewrite an understanding we were domesticated into knowing. Is there anything like this that you have experienced in a different culture/country? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Heather Caveney
Latest posts by Heather Caveney (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.