What does "dare to be dull" mean?

Is it a common cliché? If so, what are the situations in which people use it?

If it's not a familiar phrase, how does a native speaker make sense of it?

I heard it on a video. It is at about 23:30.

  • 4
    This is not something that 'people' say, it's something one man said on one occasion, parodying conventional calls like "dare to be different", "dare to be yourself". All the necessary context is in the story you link. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 8 '14 at 13:37
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is not about the meaning of an utterance but about the motivation for uttering it. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 8 '14 at 13:38
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    Actually, "dare to be dull" is a cliché or a sort of motto, not especially well-known, but certainly not just something one man said on one occasion. Even if it weren't, I think it's helpful to explain it to EFL learners to see not only what it means, but how a native speaker makes sense of it. I'll post an answer as soon as I get some time. I hope we can retain it as a topic. – Ben Kovitz Dec 8 '14 at 17:18
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    The video refers to improvisational theater, which is where I first heard "dare to be dull". The phrase has currency in other places, too, such as finance. Basically, it means to resist the temptation to do something "daring" in order to be funny, make a lot of money, be original, etc.—that in fact, you stand a better chance of success if you do the obvious, common-sense thing. The phrase is something of an oxymoron, turning the ordinary meaning of "dare" against itself. It usually makes native speakers laugh, because (in context) they understand the twist; but an EFL learner could use a hint. – Ben Kovitz Dec 8 '14 at 18:21
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    Agree with Ben Kovitz. The reason the speaker chose to use this phrase would not be apparent to a non-native speaker. Connotations like this are exactly the sort of thing a language learner needs help with, as they can't be looked up in a dictionary. – michelle Dec 8 '14 at 19:42


Q: What does "dare to be dull" mean?

  • Answer: It's used in the video to mean: "Don't Think. Just Do." (my paraphrase, not his words)

Q: Is it a common cliché? If so, what are the situations in which people use it?

  • Answer: It's clear from the comments that it's not common.

Q: If it's not a familiar phrase, how does a native speaker make sense of it?

  • Answer: I'm not a native speaker, but I believe that native speakers would understand this the same way I do. That is, if I heard this out of context, I would understand it literally: "Dare to be dull", that is "Don't be afraid to act as if you're dull".

  • Having said that, the audience in the video would understand his maxim "Dare to be dull" as clear as day because he clarified it for the audience. Before he said the maxim, he prepared the audience the concept (by contrasting "react" to "response", and mentioned that "to react ... takes too long and it's too thoughtful"). After tossing out the maxim, he also unfolded it a little more: "Rather than striving for greatness, dare to be dull. ... Because you over-evaluate, you over-analyze, you freeze up."

  • Note that this dull doesn't mean "boring". Dull in this video means "not smart" (or "not intelligent"). Smart people think. The speaker said it's better to do the opposite: don't think.


Here is the transcription of the video from 22:49 to 24:19. I include it here to show how easy the maxim (Dare to be dull) is in the context.

22:49 - You're training yourself to get out of your own way. You're working against the muscle memory that you've developed over the course of your life with a vain, a brain that acts very fast to help you solve problems.

22:59 - But in essence, in spontaneous speaking situations, you put too much pressure on yourself trying to figure out how to get it right.

23:08 - So a game like this teaches us to get out of our own way. It teaches us to see the things that we do that prevent us from acting spontaneously.

23:19 - In essence we are reacting rather than responding. To react means to act again. You've thought it and now you're acting on it. That takes too long and it's too thoughtful. We want to respond in a way that's genuine and authentic.

23:36 - So the maxims I would like for you to take from this, and again these maxims come from improvisation, is one of my favorite.

23:42 - Dare to be dull.

23:45 - And in a room like this, telling you dare to be dull is offensive, and I apologize. But this will help.

23:51 - Rather than striving for greatness, dare to be dull. And if you dare to be dull and allow yourself that, you will reach that greatness.

24:02 - It's when you set greatness as your target, that it gets in the way of you ever getting there. Because you over-evaluate, you over-analyze, you freeze up.

24:12 - So the first step in our process today is to get out of our own way.

24:17 - Dare to be dull.

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I didn't watch the video, but it is a play on a whole series of "Dare to be..." statements. I've heard "Dare to be different", "Dare to be you", "Dare to be strong", etc.. They all mean that you should have the courage to do something you are a little afraid of doing.

"Dare to be dull" is a little funny. It made me laugh when I read it. We don't normally encourage people to be boring. From the video, you'll need to figure out whether in context this was meant as a joke, or whether the person was earnestly telling people to have the courage to be boring if that is who they are.

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    Thank you for the answer.Actually the video is about communication techniques.I already struggle to understand the speaker's points but what I got is that he encourages people to speak spontaneously by without pre-thinking about much on a topic before answer a question at a presentation.Can the word dull be used as " slightly stupid"? – Mrt Dec 8 '14 at 13:52
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    Yes. In the context you mentioned, I'd say that is the meaning. Don't worry that what you have to say is uninteresting or stupid, just speak up. – michelle Dec 8 '14 at 13:57
  • if you interested in the seminar here is the link and he says it about 23:30 youtube.com/watch?v=HAnw168huqA – Mrt Dec 8 '14 at 14:01
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    And don't forget the Weird Al Yankovic song Dare to be Stupid from 1985 :) People have been writing "Dare to be some way" as far back as the 1800s according to Google. – ColleenV Dec 8 '14 at 14:07
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    @Murat - If the video is about communication techniques, I think dull would mean "boring and monotonous," not "slightly stupid." The word can be used both ways, but the "boring" meaning is much more likely in the context of presentation techniques. If he meant "uninformed" or "slightly stupid," I think dare to be ignorant would have been a much better way to say it. (Caveat: I have not watched the video.) – J.R. Dec 8 '14 at 17:02

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