How can I stop being annoying?


Why we cannot react calmly to the unreasonable demands of everyday life. The hammering from the building site across the street, people who get on you on the bus, the constant smell of the kitchen in the hallway - everyday life is full of annoyances and annoyances. The result: You are annoyed. Are you too sensitive? No, says science. In our hectic, noisy, bureaucratic world, people can't help but be irritable at times.

It's one of those days again: the plane is so late that you will miss the connection, the seat seems even tighter than the last few times, plus the six-year-old who constantly kicks the backrest from behind, and at the destination airport is natural the suitcase is not there. With hunger and wars in the world, these may all be small things. Nevertheless, you are electrified and would like to say "That's an insolence !!" smash in the face.

Travel seems to be a particularly frequent cause of such fantasized (and sometimes actual) outbursts, but it can happen anytime, anywhere. Modern humans are often annoyed. All you have to do is look around at rush hour in a crowded tram or in a supermarket just before the shop closes. Scientists say that our ancestors already knew about this uncomfortable condition. But today's world is particularly "annoying". Noise, limited space, confusing technology, bureaucratic structures - in comparison, the savannahs and forests of earlier times must have been balm for nerves.

What happens to us if something gets on our alarm clock?

In their current book "Annoying - the science of what bugs us", the American authors Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman examine the phenomenon of nervous tension and state: "Although everyone can say what bothers them, there is almost no one who can explain why something annoys him. " Researchers have also done little direct research on the subject, they concede: "Being annoyed is probably the most experienced and least explored human emotion." Nevertheless, there is no shortage of indirect scientific evidence from disciplines such as psychology, come from neuroscience, philosophy, linguistics, and sociology.

From various sources, the authors have distilled the conditions under which it is particularly easy to react irritated:

Naturally, it is unpleasant things that annoy you. Often they are not extreme, not unbearable, emphasize Palca and Lichtman, "only slightly uncomfortable". A variety of things fall into this category: a whining child, a dripping faucet, a buzzing mosquito. Some things seem to bother almost everyone (for example, the smell of old urine). Other annoyances are more subjective: what is a seductive perfume for one person is a smell for another.

In particular, inconveniences that are unpredictable get on our nerves. If the neighbor warns that he will be throwing a party on Saturday evening, the music and the pounding are easier to deal with than if the noise suddenly starts. Even things that have a regularity, a rhythm - the loud ticking of a clock, the continuous rustling of a busy road - can usually be ignored. It is much more difficult with something that seems to follow a certain pattern, but is still unpredictable. This kind of thing gets our attention whether we like it or not. If someone in the next apartment hammered for two minutes, then paused, then knocked again, then again not - those are the moments when you would like to go through the roof.

Indefinite duration:
One particularly annoying aspect of unpredictability is indefinite duration because it creates impatience. You know the unpleasant will end at some point. But when finally? "This equips the situation with pressure of expectation, a feeling of urgency," said Palca and Lichtman. If we know exactly what time noise pollution will stop - or that it will never stop - we can adjust to it. But as it is, we count every minute, we listen, we constantly look at the clock and we get more and more upset.

The effect of these three factors

can be observed particularly well using the example of a mobile phone. Listening to what others are chattering on their cell phones is arguably one of the greatest sources of harassment today. Researchers from the University of York have shown that cell phone calls are perceived as much more disruptive than conversations between people who are present. To be irritated, you don't have to be a particularly sensitive person or have particularly strict ideas about good behavior. It also has nothing to do with the specific voice of the person calling. Chatting on the mobile phone has a specialty: It is the nerve-racking triad of the unpleasant, the unpredictable and the uncertainty about time.

It is amazingly difficult to define what exactly it means to be annoyed.

There is also no consensus among scientists. In "Annoying", Palca and Lichtman have brought together different points of view. Some researchers view being annoyed as a mild form of anger. Others tend to emphasize the closeness to reluctance or even frustration.


Our complex, technical, bureaucratic world is full of grains of sand, but how often and how much you get annoyed is also up to you. The fuller your schedule, the more in a hurry you are, the easier it is to react annoyed. The severity with which you get annoyed about a traffic jam has only to do with its length or how much time you spend in it, but above all with how urgently you want to get to your destination on time.

Perhaps the best study of annoyed - and annoying - people is comedy film
"A strange couple"

The gruff sports journalist Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau) lives in a chaotic apartment with moldy food in the fridge and stacks of unpaid bills. Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon), pedantic, pathologically clean and full of tics, moves in with Oscar after separating from his wife. Thanks to Felix, the household is going through a miraculous transformation. First of all, his sloppy host appreciates the freshly washed laundry and the self-cooked food. But the constant cleaning, wiping and clearing of his guest is becoming too much for him. At first he only feels slightly disturbed, then he reacts more and more sensitively until finally there is a big outbreak. "I can't take it anymore," he yells at Felix. "I'm freaking out. Everything you do upsets me."

Felix and Oscar both belong in the "annoying contemporaries" category, people who drive their surroundings crazy with their strange, extreme or unpredictable ways. The film also illuminates a phenomenon that also affects less difficult people: the longer and more often you are exposed to someone else's quirks and whims, the easier it is to get upset about them. The psychologist Michael Cunningham of the University of Louisville in Kentucky calls this

a social allergy.

Slightly uncomfortable behaviors from others, he argues, seem to affect our emotions in ways that are similar to the immunological workings of physical allergens. Just as the body of some people reacts slightly to nettles or peanuts at first and reacts more and more with each subsequent contact, it is also with social allergies. "The first time someone discovers that their partner has reprogrammed the radio buttons in their car," writes Cunningham, "they will likely only react slightly irritated." Every time this happens again, their emotional reaction will be a little more violent. "

In his opinion, an effect called mood-congruent memory contributes to sensitization: If you feel annoyed by a friend or partner, memories of a similar incident are easily activated. The current negative feelings, the memories of previous negative feelings plus all other negative feelings of the day, which do not have to have anything to do with the behavior of the other, add up. The more frequently this process occurs, the more negatively one reacts.

Social allergies seem to be an extremely widespread phenomenon,

as Cunningham's research shows. In one study, he asked 150 participants about someone who drives them crazy with little things. Everyone was able to name at least one such person; the average was four. When asked about the biggest pain in the ass, 30 percent nominated a friend, 18 percent a partner, 18 percent a colleague, 17 percent a supervisor or teacher, and 14 percent a family member or relative. The disruptive habits ranged from rude behavior (speaking with your mouth full, picking your nose), inconsiderate behavior (constantly arriving late, talking only about yourself), intrusive behavior (commanding around, criticizing) to violating norms (consuming alcohol, flirting).

How come, some will be surprised, that so many people react allergic to their love partner of all people?

According to Cunningham's studies, several factors are responsible for this. When the passion subsides and you see your partner without rose-tinted glasses, you will notice irritating behaviors that you initially overlooked. In addition, the partner may actually show his unpleasant sides more often because he no longer wants to make a good impression at all costs, as he did at the beginning.

A study with 137 student-age couples showed a clear correlation between the length of the relationship and the occurrence of annoying behavior.

Gender stereotypes seem to make social allergies even worse:

The male study participants were particularly annoyed by the tearfulness, moodiness and constant criticism that are typically attributed to women. The female test subjects quickly saw red in "typically male" behaviors such as disorder, physical neglect or emotional withdrawal. Sensitization through repetition then did the rest to make the partners react more and more sensitively to each other. Sometimes with drastic consequences: Small irritations could build up so much over time that one of the partners decided to end the relationship.

You can part with a pain in the ass. But it will hardly be possible to avoid all the annoyances in life.


"The things that get on our nerves," say the authors, "often do so in a way that is beyond reason."


"Maybe we should just be grateful," say the authors, "that nature has given us the ability to get upset sometimes, no matter what the original cause."

You can read the complete article in the magazine:
Psychology Today 03/2012