When Others Grate On Our Nerves

Today on the plane I had a wake up call about why I allow some people to get to me.

I travel a lot for business (more than most and less than some) and find air travel to be the most tedious part of my job. So I am glad for the small perks like being able to get on a plane first and finding a place for my luggage in the overhead bin.

Today I was assigned a middle seat and dreaded having two large human beings on each side of me. Well and good for the person at the window seat, he was small built and slept most of the trip.

Then came Chuck (I saw his name on his carry on bag).

He was brusque in his manner, sat down heavily, paged through his magazine furiously, and then followed with “man spread” (legs wide open and arms spilling over the armrest on my side.) OK, I said to myself, “I can manage this, just ignore him and make myself small” Then came the headphones and his iPod that shut him out from the rest of the world. I have no problem with people listening to music while they travel, but then he began singing loudly.

By now I was starting to stereotype Chuck. He was reading an engineering magazine and I did what I tell others not to do, I started to label him by saying, “OK, here is an engineer with no social intelligence. He does not have a clue as to how his behavior is impacting his fellow passengers.”

Fast forward. After three hours of “enduring” this insufferable passenger we came to the end of the flight. As we were landing he took off his headphones and I (impersonating a human being) asked him where he was going.

What followed pricked my illusion that I am always a good judge of others. He was soft-spoken, friendly, and showed an interest in me. As I reflected on the incident afterwards I concluded that we often pre-judge people through the lens of our,

  1. Current physical state. There is a saying that I learned from people who attend Alcoholics Anonymous that we are vulnerable to our disease (mine is grumpiness) when we are, to use the acronym, H.A.L.TH = hungry; A = Angry; L = lonely; T = tired. It is easy to cry over spilled milk when we are exhausted.
  1. Past hurts. We all have our ‘hot buttons’ shaped by past experience. When someone ignores my needs, instead of detaching from the situation and not taking myself so seriously,  I can become reactive and not see the person or situation for what it actually is. It then becomes very difficult to disengage from the ‘problem’ person.
  1. Temperamental tendencies. I am an introvert and after a period of heavy involvement with others as my work requires, I just want to be left alone. And that included my physical space. Chuck invaded my personal space, air waves, and generally got on my nerves.

Next time we find ourselves responding with irritation to others we would do well to ask,

“What does this situation say about me?”

Understanding ourselves in that situation makes it far easier to respond without pre-judging, reacting, or coming from a place of prejudice. And with insight self-regulation  becomes much easier.

One of the earliest lessons I learned as a psychologist was to monitor my own feelings, sort them out, and then respond to others. Self-awareness always needs to be balanced with self-regulation.

What do you do when people get on your nerves?

Do you put the blame on them?


Do you allow them to be your teacher?

About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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