Why other people are so annoying

by Nancy on January 24, 2011

Perhaps today it was on your way to work.  Or maybe it was at the getting your kids ready for school.  Or even when you went out to grab lunch.  If you’re like most people, at some point today, tomorrow or very soon, you will be annoyed by another person.

Some are very minor annoyances.  The barista at Starbucks forgets the caramel in your “caramel iced latte.”  Or your co-workers are talking too loudly while you’re on the phone with a customer. 

And sometimes, we get majorly annoyed.  A friend’s check bounced causing all kinds of havoc in your bank account.  Or someone you work with promised to keep something you told them confidential and then you hear it from Jenny, your assistant . 

Whatever the situation may be, the real reason we get annoyed with others is that they act so differently that we do.  We would never be so rude, impatient, unethical or scatter-brained. 

Or would we?

We seem to forget something called the Fundamental Attribution Error (psychology majors may remember this).  Put simply, the FAE is when we judge a person’s behavior and assume they had a negative intention or character flaw behind it.

While on the other hand, if we were to commit the same behavior, we are more likely to blame outside circumstances and claim a positive intention. 

Here’s an example.  Let’s say a team member just arrive late to a meeting.  Let’s assume this happened once or twice before.  Now you’re certain that they just don’t care about keeping other people waiting.  Or you see them as disorganized or inefficient. 

Now let’s fast forward a month and you are late to two meetings.   The first time, it was because your child got sick and your back up childcare cancelled.  You had to wait until you could find a babysitter before heading to work.  The second time, well, this time it really wasn’t your fault.  You had to bring a report to the meeting and your printer jammed just as you were printing it.  You were late because you had to wait!

The difference between the two scenarios is in the former one, your team member does not get the benefit of the doubt.  You assume that the reason they are late is because of some internal deficiency on their part, they are lackadaisical or uncaring. Basically, you’re blaming their character or intention.

However, when you have the same exact behavior (being late to a meeting), you see it as caused by outside circumstances that were outside your control. 

We commit the Fundamental Attribution Error all the time.  And it rears its ugly head when we get annoyed because people act differently than us – and we interpret their “way” as inferior.  Whenever you start to feel superior to someone, it’s time to check and see if the FAE is at work.

My boyfriend gets annoyed when he hears single friends of our “playing games” in their dating life.  He wonders why people can’t just be upfront and honest, yet forgets that he boasted proudly that he “played me just right” when we were first dating.

When I used to be cut off in traffic, I would lay on my horn because I assumed the person was at best “a bad driver” and at worst “a blankety-blank-blank.”  I went right to attacking the person’s character or negative intention and didn’t even think of the outside circumstances that could have caused their actions.

Yet, in time I would accidentally swerve into someone’s lane, only to be blasted by their horn.  I didn’t think I was a bad driver just got distracted or was swerving to miss something else in the road. 

So if we all do it (trust me, we do) how can we catch and correct ourselves?

The first step is to “stick to the facts.”  All the Fundamental Attribution Error is a story or interpretation that we make up about the facts. 

FACT: He was late to the meeting.

STORY: He doesn’t care about our project.

FACT: He was late to the last meeting too.

STORY: He thinks he’s more important than we are.

As you can see, the facts alone are not enough to get us annoyed.  What annoys us are the little stories we spin to explain the facts.

Second, we can give the other person the benefit of the doubt by coming up with a better story.  If you’re going to be making up stories, you might as well tell ones that don’t bug you so much.

So when someone does something that annoys you, the best question you can ask is, “Why would a rational, reasonable person do something like that.”  (Yes, we’re assuming they are rational and reasonable.) Then come up with as many possible scenarios as you can to explain their behavior. 

Better yet, ask them why they did what they did.  Often we will find a perfectly logical explanation to their behavior. 

Because isn’t it true – we always think our own a behavior makes sense at the time?

Heather Keys February 4, 2011 at 8:16 am

Great article, once again, Nancy! And love the new look of your ezine!

An excellent book related to the topic of why others are so annoying is “Leadership and Self-Deception” by the Arbinger Institute. I personally believe every human on earth should read this as it is not just for “leaders”. It discusses how we betray ourselves when we start blaming others and how that leads us down a very destructive path.

If you have EVER blamed anyone else for anything, this is a must read. Your life, and the lives of those in your life, will be better for it!

Heather Keys
KeySolutions of NY LLC
Keys Insurance Solutions to Protect You

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