Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Do you have a social allergy?

We can all be annoying sometimes. Even our friends and loved ones can irritate us. With all good times come bad times. And with all positives come negatives. It’s a part of life, and so is dealing with these circumstances.

Many people don’t even realize habits they have, and if they’re not aware of them, it’s difficult to fix. I would want someone to tell me if I have a habit that annoys those around me, so I think it is important to do the same.

Alerting someone of a recurring bothersome action could be intimidating because you don’t want to upset them, but there are ways to do it lightly or even indirectly. “I’m Sorry, I’m Allergic to You” by Elizabeth Bernstein in The Wall Street Journal on July 1 explains how annoying habits can affect a relationship and ways to cope with it.

I have found that depending on my relationship with the person, their irritating habit could be unnoticeable to me, but noticeable to others, just as if it were my own habit that I don’t realize. These “social allergens,” a term used by experts “to describe behaviors or habits that drive others nuts,” vary among people based on their background, whom they associate with or habits that weren’t nipped in the bud at a young age.

Bernstein puts some of these annoying habits into perspective: “Imagine a heehaw laughter. A knuckle cracker. A braggart who always tries to one-up you. A person who thinks loud belching is a compliment to the chef.”

If an action is a one-time thing, it’s bearable, but when they happen on the regular, it can be as irritating as a fly buzzing in your ear. It’s the repetition that gets to us, just like what triggers allergies, which is why Bernstein compares dealing with these habits to allergens.

As students, we face little human allergens all the time, from a roommate who is too loud, to the person breathing a little too loudly behind you in class or to a professor who says “um” way too much. Whether we let them become bothersome is up to us.

According to Dr. Michael Cunningham, there is four main groups of social allergens: uncouth habits, egocentric actions, norm violations and actions that are both intentional and directed personally. A psychologist and professor of communication at the University of Louisville, Cunningham says the groups depend on “whether the behavior is intentional or not, and whether directed personally at an individual or not.”

Uncouth habits are unintentional and aren’t directed personally. Chewing with your mouth open or talking loudly – two behaviors commonly observed in the Dining Commons – aren’t meant to offend others, but they happen.

Egocentric actions aren’t always intentional, but they are directed personally. When a classmate asks what grade you got, or if someone takes your food, they certainly affect your taste of the person in a negative way, but the individual might not realize that it was wrong to do. The behavior affects you, even when the person isn’t thinking about you – they want to better themselves through comparisons, or in the latter example a mild form of thievery.

Norm violations “encompass offensive behaviors that are intentional but impersonal. Examples include smoking right outside the front door, talking in a theater during the show or texting while driving.” Even with the campus smoking ban, I’ve seen students blatantly walking around with a cigarette, not necessarily to provoke others (or maybe they do want to prove a point), but because they need to smoke then and there.

The last social allergen is as intentional as it gets because it is directed at a person essentially on purpose. Someone might not realize their rude commands or backhanded comments, but if they thought about the phrasing before they spoke, it could be avoided or rephrased to come across less harsh.

We usually notice these behaviors in people with whom we spend the most time because despite seeing the positive qualities in these people, society sometimes seems to focus more on the negative, and that’s what we let affect us. Think about it, even though it seems wrong, people look for the negatives in others to find the positives in themselves. But we also are able to forgive friends more than the random people who we don’t care as much about.

It’s inevitable that in every friendship and romantic relationship, each party will be irked by a recurring quirk of the other. “When they persist, the allergy gets worse, and the whole thing eventually can start to symbolize something larger that is wrong in the relationship,” Bernstein said. When you are able to control your reactions, deal with it, make a joke out of it or inform the person that what they are doing bothers you, and not let it get to you, you know the relationship is fully worth it and functional.

This isn’t to say every relationship is perfect. If a habit doesn’t stop, it is still possible to be friends with the person, but you just have to learn to tolerate it and laugh it off. Or, simply approach the individual and say, “I really value you and don’t mean to make you feel embarrassed, but this is something that is affecting me.”

It likely affects others too, and one line could work wonders.

Karen Podorefsky is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].

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