The Autodidacts

Exploring the universe from the inside out

How is it that people can be annoying without doing anything?

How is it that people can be irritating, without doing anything? Much of the day I have spent being irritated at people for the most ridiculous reasons: the sounds people make — slurping, breathing — when they’re wearing headphones, the smugness of people eating slowly while I eat fast, the sound of people doing bicycle crunches. All these things are legitimate activities. I can’t say so-and-so was being annoying, because they weren’t doing anything specifically annoying that I can point fingers at and say, it was YOUR fault I felt annoyed.

I think this has to do with people running at different speeds.

“Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” — George Carlin

Have you noticed that cheerfulness is infuriating when you’re grumpy? I have. But grumpiness is annoying when I’m cheerful. Slowness is irritating when I’m fast, and speed is obnoxious when I’m slow. Loudness is grating when I’m quiet, but silence is oppressive when I’m loud. And there’s something peculiarly obnoxious about saintliness in others when I’m not feeling saintly, and (to a lesser extent) lack of saintliness in others when I’m feeling saintly. What gives?

Some days, the synchromesh between myself and the universe isn’t working. There are four options that I can see.

  1. Try to change the other person’s behaviour. I’ve tried this, and it doesn’t work. Not recommended!

  2. Shift gears to match my surroundings. If I notice that the people around me are in a particular place on the n-dimensional Cartesian plane, and it’s bugging me, I can consciously choose to go to that place to and hang out.

  3. Engage the clutch. Sometimes, I don’t want to match my surroundings, because the state I’m in is productive, pleasant, or useful — or I don’t have the energy (or have too much energy) to match the environment. In this case, I can attenuate the stimulus by putting on headphones or earplugs (or dark glasses, if it’s an ugly Hawaiian shirt), retreating to a quiet part of the house, going for a walk, or taking my attention off of the irritating behaviours. Or, go into the basement in the gap between dinner and dessert and write an essay on the topic of people chewing smugly.

  4. Get over it and just not be annoyed. This is the ideal solution, but can be hard to execute in real life without studying Buddhism or Stoicism for a few decades, and being unusually saintly to begin with.

And other people might find my current state equally jarring, even if I’m minding my own business. Which behaviours are irritating is person-specific, but it’s good to remember: general broadcasting of one’s mood can be annoying to other people who are in a different, and incompatible, state.