There are four basic categories that most social allergens fall into:

Uncouth habits. These are behaviors that are not necessarily intended to be annoying but do the trick admirably. Noisy flatulence, nose picking, and knuckle cracking are all examples. Basically, it’s anything that a person does that detracts from your physical or sonic space. It’s not meant to be intentionally annoying.

Inconsiderate acts. These do affect a specific individual, but they aren’t done with the express intention of annoying that person. For example, you’re having a discussion with your spouse about a project you find difficult at work. At first, he is supportive, but as you explain the nuances of the problem, you notice he’s checking his Blackberry for new emails. Or he is ready to leave the house because you promised to take him out for dinner and you say, “I’ll be ready in a minute,” and it takes twenty-five minutes.

Intrusive behaviors. Unlike the first two categories of social allergens, these are intentional and personally directed. This is a person who always insists on inflicting his opinion on you, whether you are interested or not. Somebody who tells you how to improve yourself. Gives you unsolicited advice. Just generally tries to dominate you, often with the best of intentions, but you didn’t necessarily appoint this person to the role of surrogate parent. These can be relatively anonymous, like the bar bore who insists on telling you what’s wrong with America when all you want to do is watch the ballgame. Yet these can also be quite personal. Parents frequently inflict them on their adult children. Or your spouse can remind you that you don’t make as much money as Caryn, the spouse he left to marry you.

Norm violations. These are intentional behaviors that are not directed at you personally but violate some standard you have. For example, you know somebody who is not paying his income tax. IT’s not necessarily your business to supervise that person, but you pay yours, and the fact that he doesn’t is annoying. There are certain norm violations that do entail some personal impact; for example, people who smoke in the bathroom. It has a personal impact, but it isn’t directed at you.

An excerpt from Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us by Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman


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