Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Social Allergens: The Impact of Annoying Habits

The Personal Journal section of today's Wall Street Journal had a headline that caught my attention: "I'm Sorry, I'm Allergic to You." The article highlighted the work of Dr. Michael Cunningham, a psychologist and professor at the University of Louisville, who for 15 years has been studying a phenomenon called, "Social Allergens," behaviors or habits that drive other people "nuts." These behaviors or habits can be, intentional or unintentional, personal or impersonal. All impact others in a way that causes discomfort, irritation and/or annoyance.

Dr. Cunningham describes four groupings of "social allergens." The first is "uncouth habits." When a person does something that is considered rude or breaks social norms for polite behavior, they may not be doing it intentionally and it is not personally directed at others. A person might be chewing their food loudly, getting food stains all over their shirt, or picking their nose in public. The behavior may make you feel uncomfortable, but the actor is not thinking about the others it impacts.

"Egocentric actions" are a second category of social allergens. While not necessarily intentional, the behaviors are directed at you personally. Have you ever had a friend who does not order dessert, and then, without asking your permission, helps themselves to half of yours? Or a friends who smokes their smelly cigarette so close to you that you are breathing in the smoke, whether you want to or not? Or the friend who helps themselves to your cellphone without asking your permission? Or assumes you will do something with them without asking or checking your availability?

"Norm violations" are intentional but not personal. Examples the article gives are talking during a movie, or texting while driving. Other examples include running a red light or not paying income taxes.

The fourth grouping of social allergens includes "actions that are both intentional and directed personally." Insulting another person, starting a fight by saying a provocative comment or making an insensitive comment like, "what are you doing eating ice cream when you said you wanted to lose weight?" are all examples of this fourth category. The speaker may not be aware that s/he is making you feel bad. But his/her comments/actions do make you feel bad.

People we encounter regularly in close relationships are plentiful generators of our social allergies. Just like with many physical allergies, like pollen or animal dander, repetition may trigger and exacerbate our allergic reaction. If someone does something moderately annoying once, we can just write it off as eccentric or "just the way they are." However, if a friend or colleague, or partner or boss repeatedly picks their nose, barges in on you without knocking, walks around the office with food stains on their shirt, our annoyance level, or allergy, grows more uncomfortable.

Dr Cunningham notes that at work, where our relationships are involuntary, we may experience more social allergens. We may be more tolerant or forgiving of our friends and loved ones. On the other hand, in romantic relationships, where there is initially "new relationship energy," where we put our best foot forward and see the idealized version of the other person for the first one to six months, as time passes and defenses go down, we might find ourselves increasingly annoyed by some little idiosyncrasy that we could initially just write off. The article calls this "de-romanticism." And people who once thought they loved each other can find themselves picking fights over which end of the toothpaste tube should be squeezed or how many paper towels are okay to use to clean up a spill.

How do we reel ourselves in and truly not sweat the small stuff, so that the small stuff does not blow up an imperfect, but very human relationship?

1. Learn to accept that we all have idiosyncrasies. We are all uniquely human. And we all have different habits or patterns or concepts of behavior. Letting the other person be on the small stuff, like making hospital corners on not when making a bed, or closing the refrigerator door right away after taking an item out versus leaving it open to go grab a second item, can ease tension and reduce allergic reactions.

2. Talk with the other person gently about their behavior. If someone you work with or are close to has an annoying behavior find a gentle and respectful way to talk about it. If you can tell a colleague, "I know your job involves a lot of phone calls, but when you talk on the phone it is often so loud I can hear your voice in my office. You may not be aware of how your voice travels," that is very different than accusing them of disturbing your piece or telling them they are a loud mouth and to shut up.

3. Work on your own reactions. See if you can give your colleague or loved one a little more slack. Take a few deep breaths. Don't react.

4. See if what is annoying you is actually a signal that there are deeper concerns or issues in your relationship. If you feel good about someone, their little annoying habits can more easily be brushed off. If you are harboring resentment about deeper issues, the little annoying habits are magnified. If there ARE deeper issues, address them respectfully. And if you can't do it yourselves, get counseling.

All in all, it is certainly good advice not to sweat the small stuff, and to pick your battles. We are all human. Can we learn to laugh with and at our idiosyncrasies rather than erupt in allergic reactions?

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