The Scientific Reasons Behind These 8 Super Annoying Habits
Why does your coworker constantly clear his throat? What’s behind your best friend’s Facebook oversharing? The answers go a lot deeper than just "to be annoying."
Nail biting. Throat-clearing. Saying, like…like…all the time. While these habits can be annoying, they’re not intentional, and you shouldn’t avoid people who have them—no matter how challenging it can be to spend time with them. “We are social beings and staying connected to others is critical,” says James Rodriguez, PhD, MSW, Director of Trauma-Informed Services at the NYU McSilver Institute and a New York State-licensed clinical social worker and psychologist. Understanding the science behind why people do bothersome things can make you feel calmer, less isolated, and more tolerant of yourself and others.
Constantly clearing throat
Ahem, ahem! Someone who constantly clears his or her throat could have a nose and sinus problem, called chronic rhinitis, which results in excessive mucus production. People with year-round allergies, such as a dust mite allergy, may have a constant buildup of mucus in their throat, which leads to that non-stop clearing. “They’re really not trying to drive you crazy, says Zlatin Ivanov, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City. “Just give each other a lot of space.” Additional space will help you to avoid passing along possible infections (if that’s the problem) and keep the peace between you if it’s a source of irritation. It usually goes away when the seasons change, but over-the-counter allergy medications may help.
Another potential cause: acid reflux. When acid passes from the stomach upward into the esophagus, the throat swells. Mucus sticks to the swollen tissues, causing hoarseness and a cough. If home remedies for heartburn or over-the-counter heartburn medications don’t resolve the issue, a doctor may be able to prescribe a stronger treatment.
Always saying, “you know” or “like”
There’s always, like, one not-so-brilliant movie character who talks this way, you know? While those sort of people may not intentionally want to ruin your day with the most annoying phrases in the English language, don’t write off their intelligence. Research suggests that those who often say “like” and “you know” may be especially thoughtful, although an article in the Harvard Business Review suggests people who use these so-called filler words are not effective communicators, especially in a corporate setting. (Try these 30 ways to boost your confidence at work and in life.)
Oversharing on social
A minute into checking social media, you find out your high school friend just shared a super-embarrassing picture of you as a teen. How you feel about that post says a lot about whether you should be spending that much time on these platforms, says Rodriguez. “Some people may respond with anxiety and frustration, others may be angry, others may simply detach, hunker down, and isolate. Yet others, may say ‘forget it’ and just decide to live their lives.” A study that ranked subjects’ social media use from almost nil (“unplugged”) to heavy (“wired”) found that the wired group was most likely to experience symptoms of both depression and anxiety. In other words, if other people’s oversharing leaves you feeling down, you should dial back the time you spend online. Here are the mostly positive things that can happen when you quit social media.
Distracted by a pal who just can’t sit still? Unconscious brain activity may be an underlying cause of nail biting, fidgeting, or repetitive blinking, according to a 2019 study published in Neuroscientist. Researchers say people with fidgety habits reported greater urges to pick at themselves when bored compared to when in relaxing scenarios. (Here’s how your perfectionist habits could be ruining your life.)
Complaining about ailments
It may be tiresome to comfort a hypochondriac (they have a sore stomach on Monday, a swollen lymph node on Tuesday, and an achy back on Wednesday) but your pal could truly believe these minor health problems are something more serious, says Dr. Ivanov. This condition may be a sign of what medical experts call illness anxiety disorder (IAD), which involves excessive worry about contracting a serious illness even when no (or only mild) symptoms are present. Even doctors usually cannot calm an affected person’s fears. Those with IAD may also exhibit anxiety disorder symptoms.
Though it’s uncertain what causes IAD, people with major life stress, a history of abuse, or another mental health disorder, such as depression, are at higher risk. The disorder typically appears between the ages of 25 to 35; therapy and certain antidepressant or antianxiety medications may help treat IAD.
An ear-shattering sneeze
Know someone with a trumpeting sneeze? Blame their anatomy. Irritants, such as bright light or an allergen, stimulate the nasal cavity’s trigeminal nerve and trigger a coordinated reflex from the diaphragm to the brain that can be explosive, and even dangerous to the sneezer when too much pressure is exerted. Many different muscles are involved in building the pressure needed to expel the irritant via a sneeze. Individual differences in anatomy such as abdominal strength, trachea size, and lung volume may cause some sneezers to be especially loud; others may naturally use more muscles in sneezing. (Here’s the science behind why everyone sneezes differently.)
Suspect this is you? When you feel a sneeze coming, put your index finger at the base of your nose and slightly push up. This will reduce the severity of a sneeze, or perhaps even completely suppress it.
Do you know which type of anger you have? Road ragers may be prone to making themselves highly visible in ways other than aggressive driving. In a Colorado State University study published in the journal Nature, researchers found that drivers of cars with window decals, personalized license plates, and bumper stickers are far more likely than those without personalized cars to use their vehicles to express rage, such as by tailgating or honking. But a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology suggests both road rage and aggression are signs of possible anxiety. So even if these people are really annoying you, try to be compassionate, and keep in mind that they’re probably super-stressed and unhappy.
Talking way too fast
You’re sure your friend is destined to be a cattle auctioneer. Why else would he be able to ramble on at the speed of light? From what researchers know about exceptionally rapid speech (ERS), fast talking could be the result of a speech disorder called cluttering. According to a 2018 study in PLoS One, those with the disorder (called clutterers) speak quickly and may pause mid-speech in places that don’t make sense. For fast-talkers without the other cluttering symptoms, their brains may have the power to exceed normal fluency demands.
Regardless of what causes your friend’s rapid-fire speech, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Chances are he or she doesn’t have any awareness that they’re talking too fast, so try not to judge but just say, “Hey, can you slow down so I can actually understand you?” These are some other annoying talking habits you have, according to science.
- James Rodriguez, PhD, MSW, Director of Trauma-Informed Services at the NYU McSilver Institute and a New York State-licensed clinical social worker and psychologist
- Zlatin Ivanov, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City
- Harvard Business Review: “How to Stop Saying “Um,” “Ah,” and “You Know”
- American Journal of Health Behavior: “Social Media Use and Depression and Anxiety Symptoms: A Cluster Analysis”
- Neuroscientist: “Twitches, Blinks, and Fidgets: Important Generators of Ongoing Neural Activity”
- American Academy of Dermatology: "How to stop biting your nails."
- StatPearls: “Illness Anxiety Disorder.”
- American Journal of Rhinology and Allergy: "The Dangers of Sneezing"
- American Academy of Otolaryngology: "Rhinitis"
- Journal of Applied Social Psychology: “Territorial Markings as a Predictor of Driver Aggression and Road Rage”
- Journal of Clinical Psychology: “Driving Aggression and Anxiety: Intersections, Assessment, and Interventions”
- PLoS One: “Listening to yourself is special: Evidence from global speech rate tracking”
- Journal of Fluency Disorders: “The neurological underpinnings of cluttering: Some initial findings”