If you want to witness the most savage, antisocial aspects of the human species, don't attack or threaten people. Annoy them. Think about it: Would you feel more like smacking someone if earth were under alien attack, or if you were on a bus next to a guy who would not stop sucking food particles out of his teeth? See? That's why violent crime tends to decrease in the immediate aftermath of a horrifying natural disaster, but increases in (merely unpleasant) hot weather. Catastrophe brings out the best in us; annoyance brings out the worst. It follows that the thing most likely to destroy civilization is neither terrorism nor global warming but telemarketers.

If you've ever had a noisy neighbor, an oafish boss or a whiny roommate, you know that of all possible irritants, humans are the worst. Learning to deal effectively with the most grating members of our species should be at the top of every citizen's priority list. To that end, this column offers some tried and true methods for handling them without resorting to murder. By familiarizing yourself with these strategies now, you could avoid an awful lot of irritation, as well as all-out apocalyptic anarchy.

Not all annoying people are created equal, and different approaches are advisable to deal with different types. I divide irritators into three categories: Inadvertent Irritators, Insensitive Irritators and Inexcusable Irritators. I do this because of my passion for alliteration, an affliction common among self-help writers that I am almost certain is genetic. This puts me in the first category, Inadvertent Irritators. So let's discuss them now.

Inadvertent Irritators know they're bothering others and feel terrible about it, but can't help themselves. For example, some people are born with physical anomalies that make them snore, hiccup or gurgle. Some have weird, alarming laughs or speaking voices the timbre and volume of a bagpipe choir. It's not their fault—but that doesn't make them any less annoying. So how can we all learn to peacefully tolerate our Inadvertent Irritators, whom we may love deeply despite their eau de Sasquatch body odor, or the way their eyes roll back like a chameleon's whenever they chew? Sadly, the most obvious method—bolting from the room—isn't useful in the long term. There are only so many times you can pretend to receive a call informing you that your grandmother has been pinned under a tractor.

My solution is to breathe deeply and picture the irritation passing right through me. Meditators use this technique to calm themselves so profoundly that a car alarm bothers them no more than your average Justin Bieber song (and vice versa). I tried it yesterday when my dog, Bjorn, began his daily ritual of barking so loudly and continuously that nearby birds explode in flight. After 20 minutes of picturing the barking passing through a field of perfect stillness within me, my irritation was just about gone.

Another method is to give yourself a dose of perspective. Retired U.S. Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, who, when she was still a major, was captured by Iraqi forces in 1991—and suffered two broken arms, a smashed knee, a bullet in her shoulder and sexual assault—told a reporter that during the attack, she asked herself four questions: Is there a risk of death attached to [this experience]? Is it permanently disabling? Is it permanently disfiguring? Lastly, is it excruciating? If it doesn't fit one of those four categories, then it isn't important. The next time you think you can't handle your spouse's perpetual nose blowing, recall Cornum and her simple questions. Doing so always stuns me out of my irritation, leaving me humbled and grateful, and I bet it would work for you, too.

Of course, if your irritator isn't Inadvertent but Insensitive, the situation requires a more focused strategy. Insensitive Irritators are people who never pick up on social signals that they're being exasperating. No polite hint will stop them from invading your personal space, recounting the details of their colonoscopy or doing something nice for someone and then immediately chirping, "You're welcome!" They'll continue even when everyone in the room has given up on polite throat clearing and subject changing and has begun feigning death.

One method of managing an Insensitive Irritator is learning to become very, very absent. Don't be here now; be in any other place, at any other time. Daydream about the cruise you're taking next year. Recall, in vivid detail, the wonderful day when your harassing boss was arrested for tax evasion. Call up any situation that filled you with confidence or peace, and savor it in your mind like a slow-motion movie.

If you're concerned that the Insensitive Irritator will be able to tell that you've mentally left the building, rest assured that there is a solution. The Japanese have a word, aizuchi, for which there is no English translation. It refers to the little utterances that give the impression that you're listening intently, even when you're actually calculating how many calories are in a double cheeseburger. As an Insensitive Irritator goes on—and on, and on, and on—the aizuchi master leans slightly forward, looks into the Irritator's eyes and makes meaningless sounds ("Hnn!" "Wha??" "Hmm...") in tones of great conviction.

Try practicing aizuchi in front of a mirror, and soon it will become as automatic for you as driving a car. Then, when you're trapped with an Insensitive Irritator, you can just press your brain's aizuchi button, leave your body to its rehearsed routine and mentally flee the scene. Since Insensitive Irritators are terrible at picking up social cues, they won't notice the vacancy behind your eyes, or that you haven't spoken one actual word to them in hours.

Dealing with Inexcusable Irritators requires a fair amount of fortitude because these are people who know that they're bothering others and continue to do so deliberately. Examples include those who purposely offend to get attention ("Did you hear the one about the guy from Nantucket?") or publicly ridicule in a calculated attempt to embarrass ("Is that your giant schnoz, or is a single-engine Cessna landing on your face?"). The best way to deal with Inexcusable Irritators is to lock them in a room with a cobra. Actually, no! No! That's not a good idea! But it is true that the best tool for dealing with Inexcusable Irritators comes from animal training. It's called least-reinforcing scenario. The theory of LRS is that any reaction is more interesting than no reaction at all, and that if your response to a creature's unwanted behavior is to do nothing, the behavior will fade away. Reward the actions you want, trainers tell us, and when you observe the ones you don't want, make like an appliance that has suddenly been unplugged.

Since Inexcusable Irritators enjoy watching people squirm, this is a marvelous way to retrain them. When your Inexcusable Irritator begins telling racist jokes or inquiring whether you've recently put on weight, go blank. Say nothing, do nothing, display no facial expression. Then, when she stops the behavior, immediately offer positive reinforcement: a thumbs-up, a bowl of flan, money. This may be a little awkward, but don't falter! Persist! Civilization is on the line, along with your sanity.

So there you have it. Armed with serenity, big doses of perspective, aizuchi and the lessons of LRS, you can go forth into society ready to tolerate irritating people with superheroic aplomb. Not only will you establish peace within yourself, you might just become an island of calm for all the world. And should this be the case, I'll have one thing to say to you: You're welcome!

Martha Beck's latest book is The Martha Beck Collection: Essays for Creating Your Right Life, Volume One.


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