I once worked for a charity that supports Christian missionaries, and while I was there I shared an office with a colleague who made me laugh most days. You know the people who have the ability to make unexpected observations in a way that appeals to your own sense of humour? One day she looked up from her screen and stared across at our photo board which displayed our missionaries who were working across the world, and then drew my attention to a particular couple; a British woman who’d met and married a citizen of the country she was a missionary to. My colleague pointed to their photo and said, “I’ve never understood them. How do you make a marriage like that work? How do you say, ‘You’re annoying’ when you can’t fluently speak each other’s language?”
This was one of those observations that made me laugh at first – mostly because it was symptomatic of my colleague’s own feisty (and quite easily annoyed) personality, but eventually it stuck with me as a point for serious consideration. Not the question of how you make a cross cultural marriage work, but why it was so important to be able to say to your spouse, or anyone really, “You’re annoying”.
Yet most days, don’t we all get annoyed by someone? Another driver on the road, the colleague with the pedantic (wrong) opinions, the slightly socially unaware person who corners us at church and, closer to home, the one who leaves the day’s socks on the floor. It’s all very annoying.
So if we are meant to love and get on with people around us – and, let’s face it, we’re much happier and more at peace when we do – how do we cope with the annoyingness? I looked at what was written about Jesus. He is the ultimate example of how to show love, even to the unlovable. As I expected, he had his own encounters that shed some light on behaviours we still get annoyed by 2,000 years later:
The person whose lifestyle choices we don’t like. Whether it’s that their choices are outside our own moral boundaries, or are just far from what we can relate to, we all know people who our instinct is to feel critical towards. If we can avoid them altogether so much the better. In Jesus’ day, a rich tax collector called Zacchaeus was one of those characters. Tax collectors were known for inflating the price of taxes they collected, effectively stealing to line their own pockets. Definitely annoying and outcast-worthy, but Jesus saw beyond that. He recognised that Zacchaeus was trying to find a better way. So he singled him out, showed him friendship and Zacchaeus turned his life around and repaid the people he’d cheated. It’s challenging, but perhaps sometimes we need to consciously look beyond our prejudices and help someone find a new direction.
The needy person who doesn’t read social cues. A Canaanite woman wanted Jesus to heal her daughter, and shouted persistently across the crowds to get his attention. Women, particularly women from other cultures, were natural outsiders at the time. The disciples were annoyed by her and asked Jesus to send her away. Instead, He taught them a gentle life lesson by commending her faith and healing her daughter. Quite simply; when someone needs help, should we really let their off-putting approach … put us off?
The person whose point of view we just can’t agree with. In recent months, two elections held the world’s attention and evoked strong emotions. Because we live in a time where everyone’s point of view can be shared instantly and publicly, scathingly worded opinions have split even friends and families. Jesus had his own experience of a dinner-party-dividing moment. He was visiting a home in Bethany, when a woman at the house poured expensive perfume over him. His disciples were annoyed, and argued that the perfume should have been sold to give money to the poor. Sounds fairly reasonable. Jesus, however, understood a beautiful sentiment behind her actions. I say this gently: it’s worth remembering that our own viewpoint we hold so strongly is not always necessarily completely right. And if we can’t in any circumstances see why someone else might hold their own particular view, there’s still value in responding to them with respect.
Finally, there was another kind of example. The Pharisees did actually intend to harm Jesus. While he was teaching in Galilee, he became aware they were plotting to kill him, and so he left the area. It’s hopefully rare, but we may sometimes come to realise that we’re keeping company that is detrimental to us – to our emotional, physical or spiritual wellbeing. It’s good to recognise when that’s the case, and put distance between us and the source. We’ll come through the situation best if we do it while keeping our own behaviour in check though.
So here’s how I’d like to say “You’re annoying” in future:
“Some of your choices, habits and outlooks are different to mine, and these take me out of my comfort zone. Some of them are because we’ve had different experiences and, perhaps, opportunities. We both have been shaped in ways that affect how we respond to things. Some of these are positive. Where they are negative, we both still have opportunity to grow. But I respect and value you as another human trying to make your way, perhaps even dealing with something that you’re finding difficult right now.”
I promised you this in over 100 different languages. That’s how many translations the Google Translate function says it can provide – which is useful, because the potential to be annoyed is universal. And so is the peace and bridge-building that comes from looking beyond the annoying bits to the human behind them, and simply showing them kindness and understanding.
Emma Howden is a mum, sister, daughter and friend. She is a communicator at heart, believing understanding gained through clear communicating and listening can usually go a long way to help most relationships stay healthy. In a previous century she started her work life as a mainframe computer programmer, but now is loving a second career in communications, which has taken her to roles at a number of great charities. She has a strong-willed cat who regularly challenges her authority at home, and two teenage sons who make her laugh often and help keep her ideas and outlooks fresh.