Annoying is a well-crafted, valuable read. The authors give generous treatment both to the social psychology and physical science mechanisms of much that annoys. That includes public cell phone conversations, the blaring of sirens, the buzzing of flies, the cracking of knuckles, the machinations of Newman on Seinfeld. As a closet Lothario, I was intrigued that attractive traits in courtship like independence and caring can prove annoying in marriage when they morph into aloofness and cloyingness. As a Red Sox fan, I was grateful to the authors for their resurrection of Yankee reliever Joba Chamberlain’s ordeal in the 2009 playoffs against both the Cleveland Indians and swarms of annoying midges from Lake Erie.
Forgive the authors’ occasional digressions that treat descriptions of scientific processes as ends unto themselves. They are, after all, science hounds. (Joe Palca is an NPR science reporter; Flora Lichtman is an NPR multimedia science editor.) Most of the time though, their physical science is apropos, like their description of the genetic and cellular mechanisms that screw up oxytocin flow, which correlates with an individual’s capacity to empathize and absorb stress (i.e. to be less annoyed and abrasive.)
Rare in popular social science books is the authors’ admirable scientific restraint in refraining from generalizing beyond their data—Don’t expect a unified field theory of annoying. But they do offer the insight that much that annoys us may be attention-commandeering stimuli that once presaged dire outcomes (evolutionarily speaking). In evolutionary terms, schlumps who got annoyed were more likely to survive. That makes annoying in the 21st century truly affordable. Why not, in gratitude, elevate your next dinner party with tales that enchant and annoy. Here's an example from Wig and Pen:
A Horological Annoyance. In the mid 1970s my late father’s wife redecorated the family homestead with a pseudo-antique table clock that announced its presence on the half hour with a metallic stridency that might have been a soundtrack for a cartoon featuring animated cookie cutters. One afternoon, while the lady of the house was out and about, a friend who repaired clocks as a hobby and who could stand the sound no longer, marched over to the clock and gently adjusted its chime hammer. Presto! Hyde became Jekyll. Metallic annoyance became dulcet. But my friend had only massaged a symptom of the underlying problem. When the clock’s owner returned, she immediately detected its kinder, gentler timbre, and demanded immediate restoration of its previous persona. I heard the clock’s annoying ring for the final time in 1983 on the night of my father’s funeral.