The Origins of Our Pet Peeves

Posted: February 27, 2012 in Daily Life
Tags: , , , , , ,

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


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