Archive for February, 2012

It happens in a restaurant on a Saturday evening. You’ve just shared a pleasant meal with someone, and now you are experiencing the contented feeling that comes from finding a connection with another person. You like this person, you think. You’d like to see them again. And then they crack their jaw so loudly that it sounds like it will dislocate, and that tender feeling is momentarily replaced by intense irritation.

Everybody has their thing. Whether it’s listening to someone pop their gum or watching someone meander down a busy street, that little thing is what gets underneath our skin, worms its way through our senses, and makes us forget for a few seconds that we are rational human beings capable of self-control. This week, I’m talking about our pet peeves, and why they get to us as much they do.

According to, there are few limits to what can work our last nerve, with 500 common irritations ranging from whistling at work, taking up two parking spaces, to walking in flip-flops. Despite the universality of irritation, I found this topic surprisingly difficult to wrap my head around. If it is true that expressing unnecessary anger can be unhealthy, then my reluctance to think about what annoys me might be a good step toward psychological health.

After a perusal of the common annoyances posted on the internet, I divided the list into two broad categories—the sensory and the social. Like nails on a chalkboard, the sensory annoyances grate us on a physical level. Though now destined to be passing frustrations, sensory annoyances may have once served to warn us of potential dangers. Those physical sensations and sounds that seem inexplicably bothersome could have alerted our ancestors to the harmful aspects of their environment.

Some social annoyances include the person who spends an entire conversation talking about himself, the man who leaves the toilet seat up, and the woman who consistently breaks the rules of personal space. In fact, one of the largest factors contributing to irritation may be inappropriate social behavior, a phenomenon that is perceived to be growing in both practice and acceptance. Our frustration may develop when we aren’t receiving the level of consideration that we feel we deserve from the people with whom we interact.

Or perhaps our annoyance in social situations comes down to a more basic factor. The fundamental attribution error suggests that we label the rude behaviors of others as flaws of character, and the inconsiderate activities of ourselves as unavoidable aspects of the situation. The person who cuts in front of us during our daily commute must have a habit of running late, but the next morning, our alarm clock doesn’t go off. The woman who drums a solo on her desk doesn’t care that people at work need to concentrate, but we have a song stuck in our heads. Our friend who texts during lunch doesn’t care enough to give us their full attention, but we need to remind someone to pick us up later.

Of course, if the system is reversed, it means that while we’re being driven insane by someone tapping their heel against the floor, somebody else is probably seething about one of our less-than-endearing habits—something to keep in mind the next time you decide to crack your knuckles in a quiet room.

Lauren Volpone


I consider myself a social person. I take part in office jokes; I feel happy when something good happens to someone; I feel concerned when something bad happens to someone. I consider a day without making a connection with another person to be a wasted opportunity. And yet, there is always a moment, when I’m waiting in line at the grocery store, in the doctor’s office, or for a vanilla latte at Starbucks when I catch myself thinking, “I hope he doesn’t talk to me.”

Thankfully for my self-image, I don’t seem to be alone. All over the internet, people are coming up with creative ways to avoid making conversation with strangers, from wearing headphones, yawning loudly to feign exhaustion, to faking an important phone call. (I’m guilty of at least two of those strategies.) But why do we go to such extremes to avoid making eye contact with the people standing three feet away from us? The possible reason, I found, is complex.

When I began to search for the explanation to this common social phenomenon, I thought of a variety of options. Many people have rational reasons for why they don’t want to make small talk. As children, we were taught not to talk to strangers. When we were older, we realized our parents gave us this advice because those strangers could have taken us for a ride in their windowless van. The idea that strangers are dangerous may stay with us as we age, even if it is beneath our conscious awareness, convincing us that the world is a dangerous place and we’re better off avoiding new people whenever we can.

Next, I searched for answers in the sphere of evolution. During prehistoric times, there were plenty of reasons to avoid talking to strangers. The introduction of strangers into a social hierarchy would mean a smaller share of group resources and more competition for potential mates. Today, we still have our personal in-groups made up of family and friends, and we weigh our choices for new members carefully. Though most people aren’t thinking about protecting their resources while waiting in line at Best Buy, the consequences of allowing encounters with strangers may have been ingrained in us a long time ago.

Unfortunately for my theory of evolved selfishness, research into the subject tends to suggest that people are generous with strangers. In fact, people are inclined to be kind to strangers even if they never expect to see them again. So why doesn’t this rule apply to small talk? Making a stranger feel worthy of your time and conversation must constitute a significant act of generosity toward them.

The answer may lie in the diffusion of responsibility. This psychological principle suggests that people are less likely to take action in a situation if there are other people present who could share in the responsibility. Though often used to explain why competent adults don’t step up to help in crises, it can also explain why we don’t feel an obligation to talk weather with the people around us. Most small talk with strangers occurs in public places, with the duty to make conversation spread out among many possible candidates. I know I’m more likely to chat with a stranger when I’m alone in an elevator with them instead of behind them in a crowded supermarket.

So the next time that you’re staring at your shoes while waiting for the bus to come, remember that we can be responsible for great acts of generosity toward strangers, including asking the person next to us if they caught the game last night.

If you want to ask them, that is. It’s really your call.

Lauren Volpone