loud chewers, dripping taps: coping with what drives us bananas

This week in Sunday Life I make peace with annoyances

110218 3 600 loud chewers, dripping taps: coping with what drives us bananas
by Neil Stewart

I’m a very annoy-able person.  A lot of things annoy me. Here’s a small sample: sniffing, loud chewing (the type Americans do in sitcoms when in heated discussions at diners), mid-90s ozonic perfumes, when the person sitting next to me on the plane keeps brushing my elbow, people who don’t reuse their paper cup at water fountains and slow walkers on narrow paths.

And that’s just the scab on the wound. I have a deep gash worth of stuff that gives me the irits.

Actually, the word “irits” gives me the irits. In the same way “I’ll do it in a mini” does.

But the most annoying thing of all is that I’m so annoy-able. Such things really shouldn’t annoy me. And this annoys me further. And so down the spiral we tumble.

During the week I chatted with Flora Lichtman, coauthor of the new book Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us. Her pet annoyance is people clipping their nails on the subway (who knew!?). Indeed, having a guy next to her do so one morning prompted the book.

Lichtman identifies three factors that make something annoying. It’s unpleasant. It’s also unpredictable. Take the most oft-cited annoyance – people talking loudly on mobile phones. A Cornell University study found it’s annoying because we only hear half the conversation. Our brains are programmed to solve, to predict the next word in conversations. So these “halfalogues” shit us to distraction because we can’t ignore them and we can’t predict what comes next. Like being left hanging on an un-climaxed sneeze… for fifteen minutes.

The third factor is uncertain duration: a dripping tap is fine if we know it will stop in three minutes. It’s the fact we don’t that drives us mental.

But at the end of the day (apologies to people who find clichés intolerable) what makes something really annoying is the spine-twistingly irritating reality that it’s so trifle. “The other person has every right to sniff, or walk slowly because it’s such an insignificant thing,” Lichtman says. “Which means we have no right to control it.” Yes! That’s it! It’s the fact I can’t ask a sniffer to stop sniffing that’s so bloody annoying. It leaves me trapped. And trapped with a constant reminder – sniff, unpredictable pause, sniff – of my failure to cope.

Richard Carlson picked up on this phenomenon with his series of Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff books, reminding us that it is in fact the tiny stuff that provokes.

It’s an oddity of the human experience that we can handle big crises – we find inner strength, we rise to the occasion and we grow from them.

I’d argue that it’s because we have permission to actually do something in the face of large calamities.  We’re allowed to seek divorce from a cheating partner, for instance.

With the sweaty small stuff we can but sit on our hands.

So is there a dignified path out of such a double bind? Lichtman explains a lot of annoyances appear to have an evolutionary basis – nails down a blackboard mimic a primate warning call. Sulphur is present on the earth where there are low oxygen levels, which might be why we find eggy smells unbearable. I find this comforting. My low tolerance levels have a purpose and might just preserve me on the planet longer. And this abates my annoyance that I’m so annoy-able.

But drawing my comfort from Richard Carlson’s thinking, I reckon the best antidote is to not fight an annoyance, but to sit with it. I tried out a Bikram – or hot – yoga class last Sunday to test the theory. I find Bikram yoga inordinately annoying – people sweat and sniff and grunt. And the instructor yells really annoying things like: “Be an angel of pain”. What the? A total assault of the senses and sensibilities.

This time I didn’t fight it. I didn’t move my mat away from the stinky man with the cold. I stayed with the annoyance. And after about 15 minutes it was no longer annoying. Why? Lichtman suggests it’s because I eliminated the “uncertain duration” factor. I accepted it as certain that the annoyance wouldn’t go away. And so I regained some control.

Or there is always this from Carl Jung:

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

Which really is annoying!

I LOVE hearing what annoys other people. It’s pervy-comforting. It’s these quirks that make us feel connected, I reckon. Not so alone…So share! What drives you crrrrrazy?


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