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Sociability • Social Virtues

What to Do When a Stranger Annoys You

In every life, we are constantly confronted with situations where a stranger will do something acutely irritating or discomforting: perhaps they’ll turn up their music too loudly on the train, or they’ll be wiggling their leg maddeningly next to us on the plane. Maybe they’ll assign us a room in a hotel that has a strange musty smell or where a high pitched whine will be coming out of the air conditioning. In a restaurant, we may be given the worst table by the toilets, the bread may be stale and, proverbially, a fly may be found floating in the soup.

For many of us, our upbringing and cultural traditions will prepare us to say nothing at all in relation to these frustrations, and to forgive and overlook our agony instead. We may have emerged from childhood with a deep sense that we must – whatever happens – stay quiet and not cause a fuss for other people.

At the same time, we may inwardly twitch and boil. At points, we might even explode into sudden unpredictable rage. Though normally shy, we might surprise ourselves with the unbounded fury we let loose at the car rental resk, the hotel reception and with the hooded teenager in the train.

But neither the silence nor the rage seem, on reflection, to be quite the way forward. What we’re ideally searching for is a way to be at once polite and honest, or civil and forthright.

To achieve this, we should – first and foremost – build up a good relationship with our own needs. This involves accepting that not everything that makes us happy will please others or be honoured as especially convenient – but that it can be important to explore and hold on to what we want nevertheless. The desire to be unfussy is one of the loveliest things in the world, but in order to have a genuinely good life, we may sometimes need to be (by the standards of the good child we once were) fruitfully and bravely a bit tricky.

At the same time, in order not to shout, we must hold on, even in very challenging situations, to a distinction between what someone does – and what they meant to do. Our idea of motives is crucial. Unfortunately, we’re seldom very good at perceiving what motives really happen to be involved in the incidents that drive us mad. We are easily and wildly mistaken. We see intention where there was none and escalate and confront when no strenuous or agitated response is warranted.

Part of the reason why we jump so readily to dark conclusions and therefore shout more than we should, is a rather poignant psychological phenomenon: self-hatred. The less we like ourselves, the more we appear in our own eyes as really rather plausible targets for mockery and harm. Why would a drill have started up outside, just as we were settling down to work? Why is the room service breakfast not arriving, even though we will have to be in a meeting very soon? Why would the phone operator be taking so long to find our details? Because there is – logically enough – a plot against us. Because we are appropriate targets for these kinds of things, because we are the sort of people against whom disruptive drilling is legitimately likely to be directed: because it’s what we deserve. When we carry an excess of self-disgust around with us, operating just below the radar of conscious awareness, we’ll constantly seek confirmation from the wider world that we really are the worthless people we take ourselves to be.

The ideal complaint emerges from an unparanoid assumption: they aren’t deliberately setting out to irritate us; they haven’t got a plan to make us unhappy, they really just haven’t thought about us very much at all. We’re able to imagine that they could be quite a nice and reasonable person who nevertheless – without thinking about it – has upset us profoundly.

Sorry to be a bore, I’m sure you don’t realise but the back of your seat is squashing against my knees.

Apologies for interrupting, I can’t help overhearing more of your conversation than I should.

I rather love this song as well, but at the moment, I need to get some sleep.

I know it’s not your fault, but a fly does seem to have entangled itself in the minestrone.

The actual words hardly matter, what counts is the lightness of tone that comes from an impression of the legitimacy of one’s position and of the innocence of those who annoy us most. Viewed in this way, complaining is not an insult, it’s an ambitious, authentic and ultimately kind attempt to offer someone a small bit of education.

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