In Praise of Annoyance

madmom053

2011 portrait of my annoyance by my then 9-year-old Augustus

The happenstance of the stacks is a wonderful thing. One finds a call number, consults the map and marches purposefully to the floor, section, stack on which the book they seek lays waiting. And then something happens. All the neighbors call out, “read me! read me!” You could say I am a sucker, or you could congratulate me on passing thousands of other books and resisting them all, save one. But with a title like Annoying I couldn’t even pretend to resist.

There’s never a time when a fly buzzing around your head isn’t annoying (24).

That’s for damn sure. And it turns out (contrary to popular belief) I am not a mad woman for getting thoroughly annoyed by a mosquito that conducted flybys over my head for a full hour before I had to wake up the other morning. Even when I begged it to simply bite me and be done with it, even when I covered my head with the pillow—it persisted.

According to Joe Palca and Flora Lichen, the authors of Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us, there is a legitimate reason to be annoyed, and it does not solely depend upon your disposition. In the case of buzzing insects, it is the roughness of the sound (the change of amplitude over time) which is something that we notice and are hardwired to become annoyed by if the roughness is distracting. Which a mosquito’s is. It is not predictable: the sound starts and stops randomly, the volume a stochastic nightmare. And, we don’t like that.

The irritant alarm is ancient. Unlike smell and taste, which appear to have evolved multiple times over the course of history, the signal for irritation has been conserved since the Cambrian period. Our ancestors—in fact, the ancestors of all vertebrates and invertebrates—had this protein [TRPA1 which stands for “transient receptor potential A1” pronounced “trip-a-one”]five hundred million years ago, meaning these chemicals could have been annoying life on Earth for half a billion years (237).

So perhaps my one hour of mosquito torture pales a bit in comparison to that time frame. Still, it is actually helpful to know that these reactions are innate. It’s not just you. Or me. We don’t like overhearing cell-phone conversations, not because they are mostly inane, but because our brains prefer to predict. When you can only hear one side of the conversation you can not predict when the person is going to start talking again or how they might answer based on the other end. And this is annoyingly distracting. The distractibility of it gets in the way of simply re-focusing our attention. Our brains are mostly set up to help us make sense of the world and one could look at annoyance as a sort of first-defense mechanism. The brain is geared to let us know when it can not work optimally. Most of us don’t let annoyances become anything other than annoyances, and some of us should just let me others be annoyed when they are seriously annoyed (my friends, not un-coincidentally, tell me ‘annoying’ is one of my favorite words).

But what of annoying people?

Is it possible to come up with a shorthand test, one that simply measures how annoying someone is? (164)

According to Robert Hogan who runs a management consultant business—yes. He breaks “the annoying inventory” down into three parts: irritable, arrogant, and picky. In the book there are a series of questions you can answer true/false, or on a scale, to assess how annoying you may be. The problem is, of course, that one of the hallmarks of annoying people is that they do not know or believe that they themselves are annoying!

Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us, is a fascinating book that covers a lot of ground: physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy, and on and on. Being annoyed is a complex matter. But, I feel I have been helped in understanding myself and others better. I have, on occasion, been accused of being overly-anylitic, but I swear it does help me to be able to stop and analyze a situation— why is that person or thing annoying me? —Oh! because my brain is unhappy, or—oh! that’s right. because they are fucking annoying! Once I know the source it is easier to then deal with the problem, or keep the lid my annoyance accordingly. It is when annoyance flares into anger that people start to have real problems. So I  say, let’s all embrace our mild defender: annoyance. After all, to be annoyed is to be alive.

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2 responses to “In Praise of Annoyance

  1. DH Lawrence wrote a wonderful poem about a mosquito, and the annoyance factor. They’re made by the devil! The minute I switched off the light, got really comfortable, they start.

  2. Thanks for this. Being annoyed is really complex because it has two very variable people. What annoys us when we’re stressed out probably doesn’t register straight after a yoga class. and I think we get more irritable as we get older.

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