What makes people so annoying?

May 10, 2024

“You don’t like in other people what you don’t like in yourself, someone once told me,” Guardian US Editor Betsy Reed reports, adding, “I wonder if it’s as simple as that.”

Of course, not all annoying people act like us. Sometimes a behavior is annoying because we don’t understand it.

In Annoying, authors Palca and Lichtman quote Michael Cunningham, then a communications professor and researcher at the University of Louisville, who describes annoying acts as “social allergens.” These don’t bother us so much at first—but build up over time.

Cunningham says that most annoying acts fall into one of four categories: uncouth habits, inconsiderate acts, intrusive behaviors, and “norm violations”.

The first three categories are all about roughly the same thing: crossed boundaries. Someone’s actions are intruding on our time, personal space or sense of propriety. Yet Cunningham’s final category may be the most important.

“These are intentional behaviors that are not aimed at you personally—but violate some standard that you have,” Cunningham is quoted as saying.

Norms and values dictate our lives and show us what to expect. These can vary widely, however. In a recent conversation with a friend, Reed says she discussed someone she thought was a bit conceited.

“Don’t you hate when people go on and on about all the things they’ve done?” Reed asked her.

She disagreed. She figured people like that were just being honest, and taking pride in their accomplishments. Reed was stunned. Didn’t everyone believe that modesty was the ultimate virtue, like her Irish-Catholic father and raised-in-Minnesota mother had taught her? Apparently not. There are a million different cultures and viewpoints. Obviously, some will conflict.

MC Flux, a psychologist, neuroscientist, and science communicator from the University of Colorado-Boulder, describes annoyance as “moderately negative, and moderate arousal.”

Ultimately, he believes, humans want to “maintain homeostasis,” to feel as if they are safe, stable, and in control. Emotions, particularly high-arousal ones, often lead to actions that we hope will get us there.

Similarly, annoyance serves a purpose, says Flux: “It’s basically a flag, saying: ‘Something is wrong, and I should probably do something about it.’”

“I know I can be annoying.” Reed writes. “Sometimes I’ve wondered if it’s possible to have secondhand embarrassment for myself. I also know that I can be easily annoyed.”

Pam Shaffer, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, suggests getting “curious about the other person’s experience”. If someone is doing something that violates our norms or boundaries, there’s almost always a reason for it. Trying to imagine what is driving their behavior can make us feel less annoyed.

While it’s not necessarily a positive emotion, curiosity “can defray a negative emotion,” Shaffer says.

So we shift the question from “Ugh, why would anyone do that?” to “Huh, why would anyone do that?”

“Often the behavior I find most annoying is attached to some deep-seated insecurity,” says Rachel Vorona-Cote, author of Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today. What annoys her is people who lack awareness of their own actions. “It’s uncomfortable to bear witness to people who don’t have any idea of the effect they have on others.”

Monitoring our own behavior, then, and being conscious of what we are insecure about, might make us less likely to irritate others. This can be tricky, though, especially for the many people who struggle to interpret social cues, or for those who live in a culture different from the one they were raised in.

And how much looking inward is too much? The cruel irony is that being obsessed with how one is coming across can make one more annoying. I spent my teens and 20s as the friend who apologized constantly. It was exhausting, both for me and for others.

Flux suggests that it’s not helpful to think about how to be less annoying: “Everyone’s going to find you annoying in some way,” he says. A more important question might be: “How do we learn to better manage things that annoy us?”

“I think sometimes we can take too much of a confrontation-heavy approach to how we interact,” says Flux. Instead, we could try what he calls “prosocial behaviors”—actions that are designed to build connections with others, like teamwork, positive reinforcement, or making ourselves useful.”

Research contact: @GuardianUS