You need a somewhat flexible strategy to cope with annoying people. A review of the relevant parameters and various options can help you choose one that best fits the situation. The immediate options boil down to fight, flight, freeze, surrender, holding your ground (i.e., carrying on), strategizing, meta-communication, and self-reflection.
Which approach you use will depend on a number of factors. The importance of the relationship to each party matters a great deal; importance typically favors engagement over avoidance, but dependence can favor avoidance if engagement could lead to a disruption or termination of the relationship. Importance may be a function of love or conscience, as with family members, and dependence a function of need or convenience, like when you have to work next to someone or there’s money at stake. A therapist’s dependence on clients (typically on their fees but also on their smiles) is usually toxic and leads to avoidance of annoying behaviors in a relationship that is designed to elicit and explore them.
Your personal style will limit your approaches to annoying people, and most people rely too much on one method, partly because they would rather feel as if they have done all that can be expected instead of feeling as if they have done all that might work. Some methods you are not authorized to use even if you want to, meaning the method itself would undermine the role you are in. For example, students can’t usually get away with “standing their ground” with faculty—even outright arguing is preferred—because the student role by definition is affected by faculty conduct.
Tit for tat is an excellent strategy for managing annoying people in those contexts, like most contexts, where mutual cooperation garners the best results overall. This strategy requires you to be cooperative until the other person is not. Then you stop cooperating until they start. Tit for two tats may be an even better strategy. Here, you overlook the other person’s first annoying behavior and don’t start reciprocating until they’ve done it twice in a row. Even if you try tit for tat, there are different ways to be cooperative or uncooperative.
1. By “fight,” I mean any use of aggression to make their annoying behavior less appealing to them. This can range from insulting them to gossiping in a way that is sure to get back to them to threatening a lawsuit, discipline, or even physical attack. This will not change their tendency to behave annoyingly, because punishment doesn’t work, but it might keep them from doing it around you. One downside is that overt hostilities may ensue.
2. By “flight,” I mean avoidance of the person. This can range from skipping the deli counter when the proselytizing server is on duty, to leaving Paris to Parisians, to permanently or indefinitely cutting off a friend or relative. A cold war may ensue. If the person is important to you, all hope of resolution is lost.
3. “Freeze” means a kind of avoidance that doesn’t draw attention to yourself. You might ignore a group email, sit through a meeting silently, or just wait for the car blaring loud music to move along. It’s Taoist, but make sure it’s not a situation you can improve before holding still.
4. “Surrender” means letting annoying people have their way. You let the monologist speak while listening (to only pretend to listen would be to freeze). You go on social dates you don’t want to go on. You endure pomposity or harassment because you need the job or the grade.
5. “Holding your ground” requires some of what I call virtuous aggression, but it is not an overt challenge to the annoying person. Instead, it insists on not being annoyed, on neither caving nor avoiding, in short, on going about your business. You might excuse yourself from the monologist without apology or briefly speak your piece at a meeting, acknowledging that others have heard your point of view already. You might eat only what appeals to you, or order what you like. You might ignore cooking suggestions and proceed as planned. Done with good humor, this can devastate annoying people, even when that’s not your goal. It’s not the stereotypical attacking masculine aggression nor the stereotypical passive feminine aggression, but a powerful and androgynous way to manage yourself. It’s especially useful when combined with metacommunication if the annoying person is your child or your therapy patient. Keep calm and carry on, advised the British in WWII: words to live by.
6. “Strategizing” acknowledges that annoying behavior is usually designed to get something—status, the last piece of pizza, acknowledgment, a feeling of being special, for examples. When it’s designed to get something concrete, it might not be worth it to give it to the person, but when it’s designed to get a sense of importance, however defined, you can often end the annoyance by giving the person the status they seek. You can compliment a diva and further compliment his discretion in leaving you to whatever you were doing.
7. “Metacommunication” is an honest effort to resolve conflict by discussing it, arranging for mutual understanding and maximization of satisfaction. It works only if the other person is also making a good faith effort to maximize satisfaction. This often means unpacking your goals. Instead of compromising, which can also result from metacommunication, it can mean finding new solutions that meet a lot of subgoals. For example, your spouse wants to go to Watercourse for dinner and you want to go to Hamburger Mary’s. A good compromise is to take turns picking the restaurant, or to find a place that both are fine with. Unpacking goals can lead to the discovery that you really want to eat outside and your spouse primarily wants vegetarian fare. This can lead to eating at Racine’s, which has a lovely patio and great salads. Good metacommunication describes annoying behaviors and annoying people in ways that they would readily agree with. Just getting to that point helps resolve the problem, because it requires seeing it from the other person’s point of view. According to Bateson, metacommunication may be the main thing that psychotherapy teaches patients to do.
8. “Self-reflection” should come first on this list. Perhaps I am the annoying member of the system. What can I do to find out if it’s my behavior that violates norms? And if I am not annoying, perhaps my expectations are too high. Maybe I expect my spouse or other people to be superhumanly attentive, robotically obedient, or perennially alert. The fundamental attribution error describes our tendency to appreciate the context of our own foibles while attributing the foibles of other people to character defects. Self-reflection can help us appreciate that other people are operating in contexts, too.