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THOMPSON: The complicated science of annoyance

February 10, 2020 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


Is there someone who - when he or she walks into the room - you find yourself annoyed? I’m betting there is. In fact, you’re probably thinking of that person right now as you’re reading this…and your blood pressure is starting to rise.

The fact is…it happens to all of us. The effect is called negative affective presence by psychologists…and while it’s an emerging field of study…currently we have more questions than answers. For example, that person who annoys you when you see them might well be having a great day as they ruin yours. In other words, they are carriers who don't suffer from the disease, so to speak.

You don’t have to necessarily know folks…even strangers can annoy you. Of course, if lots of strangers annoy you…hell, it could be you that is annoying. It’s complicated science.

Some of the moments that most annoyed me….have come from total strangers. I don’t know whether these things bother you…but they sure bugged me. I’ve found that airports and airplanes seem to be the Petri dish not only for colds and flu but for annoyances, as well.

Indeed, the mere thought of air travel annoys me…even when I love my destination. But two specific occurrences are at the heart of my annoyance with air travel. About ten years ago, while waiting to board my flight at a crowded gate in Tampa International Airport, the guy next to me removed his shoe, his sock and proceeded to clip his toenails.

I remember looking first at him…then his bare foot…then back at him…as clippings were flying everywhere. I then looked at several fellow travellers within sight and earshot of this Neanderthal. Some - like me - were wide-eyed with mouths gaping…while others seemed oblivious. If you think public toenail clipping appropriate…exactly where would you draw the line…shaving genitalia in public?

Another annoying instance on a plane - this one 20 years ago - left me speechless…something that is hard to do. A woman sitting in the middle seat - I was on the aisle - on a flight from Atlanta to New York ate lunch, then with a foot-long piece of dental floss began popping bits of masticated food trapped between her 32 teeth. Passengers - including me - were dodging her leftover ham and cheese sandwich as she flossed with the flare of a professional shoe-shiner.

I won’t say these events traumatized me…but I sure as hell was annoyed…and I’ve never forgotten it. At least it’s understandable how someone’s odd behaviour can annoy. But what determines the aforementioned negative affective presence? How can someone simply entering a room bother us?

Image Credit: ADOBE STOCK

Does someone’s body language, voice quality or physical appearance make them annoying? Maybe. We don’t know yet, but researchers are studying it. In fact, a host of psychologists, neuroscientists, sociologists, audiologists and cultural anthropologists are on the case. Even so, the fact that I can’t tell you how and why right now…well, that might be annoying in and of itself.

Misophonia is a strong reaction to everyday noises…dripping water, loud gum chewing, jingling keys, a clanging spoon in a bowl, slurping drinks. This is, according to the Mayo Clinic, somewhat rare…fewer than 200,000 cases a year in the United States. Hmmmm…do I know all these people? Because that number sounds low based on my experience of observing annoyed folks.

Further, I have a sneaking suspicion that people don’t like music so much as they like noise-cancelling ear buds shoved farther in their ear canals than they can get a Q-Tip. I get irritated by some sounds, simply because I know how to stop them…and apparently the people making those sounds don’t. Simple solutions…chew with your mouth shut…or get off your lazy butt and see why your dog is barking.

Science is making some progress…and the findings are understandable. For example, if most of us overhear a conversation between two other people…it isn’t necessarily annoying. But if one of those people is on a cell phone and you only hear half the conversation…chances are you are going to be annoyed.

The reason, science tells us, is a matter of predictability. We don’t know what the other person is saying…or what they sound like. Predictability extends to the the known versus the unknown. We’re more likely to be irritated when - for example - a plane is delayed and we know the reason why rather than being kept in the dark…with just a “Delayed” message on a departures board.

Repetitiveness plays a part in what annoys us, as well. That’s why, for example, a dripping water faucet can drive us nuts. A single explosion at a construction site might surprise or alarm you…but if it happened every 30 seconds…it would annoy you.

Hey, we all get annoyed. Some more than others. Personality has a lot to do with how we handle life’s irritations. We are what we are…neuroses, upbringings, biases, points of view…all influencing what we hear, see, smell and feel.

But some annoyances are so powerful it matters little whether you’re raised in Vernon or Atlanta…whether you’re black or white…young or old. Some things just set people off — and the fact that those who are causing it don’t seem to notice — well, it just makes it worse.

As for me, I’m a little better at blocking out life’s annoying sights, sounds and people today than in my younger days. But, unfortunately science hasn’t caught up with the mysteries of annoyance.

In fact, who knew you could even annoy yourself. I just now thought about that wad of Christmas lights I threw in the closet last month. Yeah, next December, when I see that tangled mass of lights and wires…I’m going to be annoyed…again.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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