‘Social allergens': Dealing with other people’s rudeness

Rude behaviors break down into four types, a psychologist says, but there are ways to deal. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — You know those things other people do that drive you crazy? Well, you probably already have a name for them, but experts call them “social allergens,” the Wall Street Journal reports.

With “social allergens,” just like with the things that cause physical allergies, the repetition is what gets under your skin.

“The first time you are seated next to a co-worker who is loudly snapping bubble gum, you don’t care,” psychologist Michael Cunningham tells the Journal. “After three weeks, you are praying they’ll choke on it.”

Cunningham says annoying behaviors break down into four categories, depending on two questions: Is the behavior intentional? And is it directed specifically at you?

Cunningham outlines four categories:

  • Uncouth actions, according to Cunningham, are unintentional and not directed at you — think of chewing gum loudly or yelling into a cellphone.
  • Egocentric actions aren’t necessarily on purpose, but they consciously involve you — Cunningham gives examples such as talking with you for a long time even though you said you could only chat briefly, or not ordering dessert but then eating yours.
  • Offensive behaviors that are intentional but not personal are called norm violations — think talking in a theater or smoking right outside your door.
  • Intentional behaviors that are directed at you personally. Backhanded compliments and presumptious commands are good examples.

So what can you do about these social allergens? It’s tough. It’s the people we’re around the most — co-workers and romantic partners — who give us the most agitation, Cunningham says. And that makes it all the more important to handle the situation deftly.

Cunningham says you can approach the person who’s driving you nuts gently, and after some real thought about what you’re going to say.

But your best bet is the same advice you’ll get for any problem in any work or personal relationship: You can only control what you do and feel.

Even if the behavior is on purpose, they’re not irritating you on purpose, and there’s probably some other reason for it, Cunningham says. And you can choose to see their behavior as something they can’t change.

“That is just the way they are,” says Cunningham. “You can decide to let it go.”

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