Day’s Verse:
Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.
Matthew 5:38-40

One of the neat things about NPR is hearing about interesting books you’d never know about otherwise. For example, a book by Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman called Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us. Most appropriately, it has a picture of tangled Christmas lights on the front.

In Annoying, the authors explore various aspects of annoyance: Types of annoyances, parts of the brain potentially linked to experiencing annoyance, and, most interestingly, why things annoy us. Unfortunately, scientists haven’t specifically studied what makes something annoying. Fortunately, lots of fields touch on it tangentially, and the authors discuss those. I won’t get into the details, because Annoying is quite well written and easy to read, so you should just go get it from the library yourself. However, I wanted to touch on one thing they talked about: Other people having cell phone conversations in public.

Is there anything more annoying than sitting in an airplane, on a bus, in restaurant, or in some other shared public space, and having somebody talking on his cell phone? Nary a month ago, a lady was kicked off a train for talking on her phone for fifteen hours straight. It’s amazing her fellow passengers didn’t just rise up, seize her phone, and toss it out the window. On page 4 of Annoying, the authors quote Mark Twain’s description of hearing half a phone conversation, and I just have to share it:

Consider that a conversation by telephone — when you are simply sitting by and not taking any part in that conversation — is one of the solemnest curiosities in modern life. Yesterday I was writing a deep article on a sublime philosophical subject while such a conversation was going on in the room…. You hear questions asked; you don’t hear the answer. You hear invitations given; you hear no thanks in return. You have listening pauses of dead silence, followed by apparently irrelevant and unjustifiable exclamations of glad surprise or sorrow or dismay. You can’t make head or tail of the talk, because you never hear anything that the person at the other end of the wire says.

Annoying talks about what’s so…well…annoying about that type of behavior. There are a number of aspects to it.

  1. Unpredictability. There’s a theory that your brain tries to predict what’s coming next in conversation. When you’re talking with somebody, you aren’t actually listening or even thinking of your next response. Instead, you’re anticipating what that person’s going to say. When a stranger inflicts half a conversation on us, we’re unable to predict the course of the conversation, and it drives us crazy. In fact, one key component of any annoying experience is that it’s unpredictable. On top of that, your ear is well-attuned to words. You can’t help but listen if you understand the language — even if you don’t want to.
  2. Unpleasantness. It’s not painful to have somebody inflict half a conversation on us in public. But, like a fly buzzing around, it’s just not pleasant. And, on top of that, you can’t alleviate the unpleasantness. Instead, you just have to deal with it.
  3. Unknown timeframe. You know that cell phone conversation will end eventually, but you don’t know when it’s going to end. You impatiently wait for the end of the call, hoping it will end soon. As a result, you keep thinking, “Maybe they’ll be done now,” only to suffer repeated disappointments and dashed hopes as the call goes on. Of course, you have to feel impatient in the first place for this to work. If you’re stuck in a traffic jam and have to get somewhere urgently, you feel impatient and annoyed. If, on the other hand, you have all the time in the world, that traffic jam is just an opportunity to listen to the radio. No biggie.

In addition, we tend to find socially unacceptable things (like clipping fingernails in public) annoying, perhaps another reason cell phone “halfalogues” irritate almost everybody.

And, finally, things that prevent us from completing a task tend to annoy us, so the distraction of hearing half a conversation that prevents us from completing our intended activity adds to the annoyance factor.

Whatever the ultimate causes of annoyance, I think we can all agree that having half of another person’s cell phone conversation foisted on us, the unsuspecting victims, is about as annoying as it gets. After reading this book, though, I will never look at annoyance quite the same.

4 thoughts on “The Science of Annoying

  1. It’s from a short story of Twain’s – pretty classic stuff. Although to warn you, it’s a female he hears on the phone, and Twain includes some then-new-now-trite women-are-always-chatting-on-the-phone humor. But it’s extremely well-written, at least, as with most of his work. 🙂

  2. Many of those reasons are why I find whispered conversations more annoying than ones at a normal volume.

    Sometimes people in libraries or other ‘quiet’ zones will whisper to avoid annoying people. However, the sound of a loud whisper carries far even if the words are indistinguishable. And because the words are indistinguishable, the mind of the eavesdropper works hard to figure them out – making a whispered conversation more distracting and difficult to tune out.

  3. That sounds like a really cool book. I should see if our library has it.

    On a side note about the phone thing, (the post made me think of it), I read somewhere that people often observe their pets pester them when they’re on the phone. Suddenly the cat will just appear and be under foot or batting at things, etc. And the proposed reasoning behind it is that obviously animals don’t know what a phone is, but when they hear your voice, they assume you’re talking to them. hahah Once I read that I started tuning into our cat when I’m on the phone. She’ll walk across my lap or be right under my feet (especially if I’m in the kitchen). She probably thinks I’m calling to her to feed her. 🙂

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