February 18, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Posted in Nonfiction | 7 Comments

I knew at a glance that I needed to read this book. Is it just me, or has the world gotten more annoying lately? Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman explore this in “Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us.”

I want to summarize some points I found interesting, and then talk about things I find annoying. What could be more fun than that? I also want to annoy my readers by deliberately misusing punctuation, but I will refrain, although since this is my first ever blog by iPhone, I’m sure I’ll do it accidentally.

• Annoyance is difficult to separate from anger.
• Initial testing suggests that the higher a person’s body mass index, the more likely that person is to experience annoyance.
• What annoys people depends on culture, physical and mental health status, and gender.
• Listening to half a conversation is one of the single most annoying experiences humanly possible, because we can’t stop ourselves from trying to imagine the part we can’t hear. This is why cell phones are universally reviled.
• Men are more likely to be annoyed by women when they see them as domineering and controlling. Women are more likely to be annoyed by behavior they see as uncouth.
• A baby’s cry acts on the limbic system. Parents are able to tolerate it because they have an emotional, hormonal bond with their child. But to others, it is one of the most annoying sounds possible.
• Fingernails on a chalkboard make a sound reminiscent of a primate alarm call. Our horror of this sound is instinctual.
• Other animals don’t tend to experience dissonance, as in someone singing off-key. (True of my parrot, who finds loud, annoying sounds amusing and loves music though lacking in taste).
• It is difficult to put a finger on exactly what is annoying about an annoying person, but it is clear that annoying people don’t know they are annoying. (To paraphrase Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense.”)
• As a corollary to this, those who are most easily annoyed also tend to be the most irritating. Did someone immediately come to mind for you the way it did for me?

Do you ever have one of those fantastic coincidences that seem designed for blogging? My DH just interrupted me to ask what was for dinner, then peered intently at me and pulled out an errant white hair. I asked him, “For my blog, which one of us was annoying just now?” He said, “Me.” “But my hair! It was just driving you crazy!”

As I was typing this, a kid of indeterminate age and gender ran down our street, calling out operatically for the duration of several sentences. This might have been annoying but was in fact hysterically funny. Why is that? (Possibly because the words were unclear).

I believe our rising level of annoyance is both good and bad. Good, because in the distant past “annoying” behavior often led to overt violence. Bad, because it’s likely a symptom of simple population pressure. There are at least 20% more people around than when I was a kid, and as far as I can tell they all set out to tailgate me.

Compassion meditation helps hugely when dealing with annoying strangers. I find that headphones and an app called “Nature Sound” do a great job of masking noise when working in public. As a high-reactive person, I remind myself that my snit may not be someone else’s fault. I also learned to quit caring about poor grammar, punctuation, and spelling when I married an engineer – a brilliant man who struggles with those things but can beat me at Scrabble. Everyone wins when we learn to take it easy and let it go.

It is my thesis that annoyance leads gradually to positive social change. Personal hygiene is a case in point. Once the majority agrees that a given behavior is not just a pet peeve but intrinsically annoying, social pressure begins to drive the behavior to extinction. Sexual harassment is a case in point. I had a coworker who was over 70 who came up behind me and blew in my ear – something he probably decided was charming back in the 50s. Isn’t it amazing how quickly certain things change?

The social networking world may be a microcosm of accelerated social evolution. Memes such as the xkcd cartoon “Someone is wrong on the Internet” and the term ‘vaguebooking’ spread almost instantaneously. As annoying as your politically ranting friend may be, at least he is expressing his feelings in text. Perhaps in time, maybe even one lifetime, he may learn to relax and regard these matters more meditatively.

The habit of blog commenters who leave long-winded critical remarks and then depart, never to participate in a real dialogue, will probably never die, though. And that’s my pet peeve.



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  1. I love that the chalkboard sound is instinctual. Anything that points to the idea of a Universal Unconscious makes me squeal with delight.

  2. Annoyance is right next door to anger, but I’ve also noticed that a feeling of being perplexed often precedes annoyance. I guess that’s what gave rise to that somewhat annoying acronym WTF.

    “Is it me, or…?” No, it’s not you. It’s the world.

  3. This sounds like a fascinating book! The child crying is totally true for me. It irritates the hell out of me when it is anyone else’s child but mine. (And even then, sometimes my child’s cry irritates the hell out of me.)

    I think you are completely right that we have to just let go. I am much happier when I actively avoid being annoyed by all of the annoying people around me – particularly when driving.

    P.S. Glad to have you back. I’ve been missing your reviews.

  4. I’m struck by the link you mention between annoyance and culture, physical health, mental health or gender! I find I’m becoming increasingly likely to get annoyed and that in itself means I’m getting annoyed with myself for getting annoyed in the first place (if you know what I mean!) I used to be pretty laid back and placid – but I’m changing and unlike Jessica I now have to work actively to stop getting annoyed when I’m driving – before it didn’t bother me! So when I read your post I wondered why I’m getting more annoyed – my culture seems static, my physical health is the same and being a man isn’t going anywhere soon – which only leaves my mental health! I wouldn’t necessarily have been too bothered by that but you also mention the link between getting annoyed and being irritating – so not only am I becoming irritable but as a consequence I’m a damn sight more irritating as well! I guess the inevitable conclusion for my family is we are all getting annoyed with me – time to take your advice and just let things go I think! Thanks for the wake up call!

    • I can die happy now. At least one person was positively affected by something I wrote. 🙂

  5. Interesting. I might take issue with the baby crying though. I think a baby crying is more frustrating for the parents, who are trying to get the baby to stop crying, than anyone else. On the other hand, maybe I feel that way because I have a young baby? It’ll be interesting to see how I feel in 10 years when I hear a baby cry.

    As a previous commenter mentioned, I miss your reviews too!

    I can’t believe you typed this whole thing on your iPhone…

    • Thank you! I haven’t forgotten about my blog; I’ve just been concentrating on my book.

      Since you asked, I will give you my opinion on the “crying baby” problem. There is roughly one childless adult for every two people who are parents. Many childless adults are uncomfortable around children even when they are quiet and behaving well. Parents of a crying child at least have some idea of a few things they could try to make it stop. Childless adults are subject to an annoying noise they have no control over, plus they have to be sensitive and avoid saying or doing anything (or making faces) that would offend the parent.

      Most of my friends, family, and acquaintances have kids of one age or another. Some are sweet kids and some are out of control brats. In no case is a parent ever willing to take someone else’s advice. “Don’t tell me how to raise my kids.” Once kids come along it can’t help but change the nature of the adult friendships involved. Personally, I prefer kids over the age of 7 (when they can read) and I like teenagers best.

      That being said, the book “Annoying” states that a crying baby is *objectively* one of the most annoying sounds for humans. It’s hard-wired into the brain as a survival trait.

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