What Makes Someone Annoying? People Who Grate Your Nerves Have This One Thing In Common

People who smack their gum. People who have inappropriate yet obnoxiously loud cell phone convos in crowded areas. People who crack their knuckles. There are a million ways to be annoying, and we've all probably been on the spectrum at some point. I know I have (*cracks knuckles*). But while we've all encountered annoying people and quite possibly been the ones doing the annoying, it's tricky to pinpoint what makes someone annoying. While everyone is annoyed by something, your definition of annoying may be wildly different from someone else's. If you boil these annoyances down, though, do they have something in common?

If you think about the people who annoy you the most, it might seem like the annoyances are actually born of personal preference or sensitivities. For example, it irks me to no end when someone clips their nails in public.I'm also a germaphobe, and this seems highly unsanitary to me — not to mention, that little clip-clip-clip sound makes me irate enough to shove bamboo shoots under my own fingernails. My husband, however, barely bats an eye at this habit I find so irksome. On the other end of the spectrum, there are certain annoyances that truly seem universal: think fingernails on a chalkboard or a high-pitched scream.


All of these annoyance, whether personal or transcendent, would seem to suggest that it's quite possible the one thing annoying people have in common pertains to sound. Consider it for a minute. Aren't many of the things you find most annoying based more in the sound than the action? In addition to the aforementioned cracking of knuckles, clipping nails, and scratching a blackboard, some of the sounds that make people annoying are chewing food loudly, whining, heavy breathing, snoring, shrill laughter and the list goes on. As it turns out, science can explain this.

A 2012 study from Newcastle University found that certain sounds trigger an exaggerated response in the amygdala — the part of the brain that regulates emotions — as well as the auditory cortex, which processes sound. To examine this link, researchers studied fMRI scans of participants while they listened to 74 different sounds and rated them based on degree of unpleasantness. Of the sounds, those polled found "knife on a bottle" to be the most unbearable. Essentially, when we hear certain sounds, the emotional part of our brain goes into hyperdrive and enhances the sound, making it seem all the more unpleasant. Understandably then, the person making the sound inherently becomes incredibly annoying.


Still, in some cases, what annoys us about people has less to do with sound and more to do with context. It can be extremely grating when someone brags, but it has more to do with what they're saying as opposed to the actual sound of their voice. Being subjected to someone's cell phone conversation in a public place can make you want to flee the scene. But again, this is more a matter of context than auditory response. So how does this translate into what makes people annoying? Psychology graduate student Lauren Emberson may just have found the answer.

In an excerpt from Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us — a book co-authored by NPR Science Correspondent Joe Palca and Science Friday's Flora Lichtman — Emberson explains, "I think the reason why is that we can't tune it out ... our attention is drawn in and that makes us irritated that we can't be doing the other things or thinking about the other things that we want to. That's why it seems intrusive." Hmm. That actually makes a lot of sense, doesn't it? The one thing annoying people all seem to have in common is that they are difficult (or seemingly impossible) to ignore.


Whether it is someone who bends your ear with self-presentation every single time you're in range, someone who smacks their gum loudly, or someone who is in the habit of discussing their latest sexcapades on their cell phone at a crowded bistro, the people we find annoying are uninvited. By sound or by action, they invade our space in a way that is unwarranted and, often, insensitive. In some cases these annoyances are inadvertent and in others they are outright intentional, but they're annoying either way because they force us to stop what we're going and divert our energy in the direction of trying to ignore or overcome said annoyance.

The bad news is annoying people are not in short supply. The good news is there are psychological tricks of the trade you can use to help deal with the annoyance as they arise. In their book, Palca recommends a tool called cognitive restructuring. Want to give it a try? Know your triggers, challenge any negative thoughts, and change your perspective. In other words, try to accept that annoying people are "a part of the life flow of the world."

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