Take a minute before you read this post and look around your office (or classroom or coffee shop). Is there anyone there who just always annoys you? Is there a person who consistently energizes you?
Chances are good the answer is yes. And chances are also excellent that you thought this was just some personal quirk of yours. It doesn't make huge amounts of sense, after all, that some people instantly and for no apparent reason put your teeth on edge or make you smile. But I have good news for you: you're not a weirdo!
This ability of some people to completely annoy everyone for no apparent reason is a recognized scientific phenomenon. It's called "affective presence" and The Atlantic just investigated the subject in a fascinating article (hat tip to The Cut).
Science can't figure out why some people are just so annoying.
"A small body of psychology research supports the idea that the way a person tends to make others feel is a consistent and measurable part of his personality. Researchers call it 'affective presence,'" reports Julie Beck in the piece.
For some people their affective presence is a huge positive -- others just relax when they walk in a room. For other poor, benighted souls their affective presence is a nasty liability. They just instantly annoy everyone. And as of yet no one is quite sure why.
"Exactly what people are doing that sets others at ease or puts them off hasn't yet been studied. It may have to do with body language, or tone of voice, or being a good listener," writes Beck, but what is known is that it isn't just a function of emotions being contagious.
People with a negative affective presence don't just annoy others out when they are annoyed themselves. They can be having the best day of their lives and still irritate others. Your emotions and your effect on the emotions of others are distinct phenomena.
"To use common, everyday words, some people are just annoying. It doesn't mean they're annoyed all the time. They may be content because they're always getting their way. Some people bring out great things in others while they're themselves quite depressed," business school professor Hillary Anger Elfenbein, who has studied the subject, explains to Beck.
Affective presence may be mysterious but it matters.
Now that I've reassured you that annoyingness really is a thing and you're not just imagining it, I have some bad news for you. The science is so new that, if you suspect you have a negative affective presence, there's no quiz or assessment that can tell you for sure. Nor, sadly, is there a cure if you're 100 percent certain your cubemate is a sufferer.
And what's worse, while science doesn't know much about affective presence yet, research has confirmed it totally matters. Whether researchers look at the interaction of classmates, online dating, or business leadership, having a positive affective presence (AKA not spontaneously annoying everyone) was unsurprisingly a huge factor in success.
"Hector Madrid, an organizational-behavior professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile... and his collaborators have found that leaders who make other people feel good by their very presence have teams that are better at sharing information, which leads to more innovation. Subordinates are more likely to voice their ideas, too, to a leader with positive affective presence," notes Beck.
So while I can confirm that some people really are constant energy-sucking bummers and that if you want to be a good boss you really shouldn't be one of these people, I sadly can't tell you how to improve in this area. If more research becomes available I'll let you know though. Maybe you can pass it to your most annoying colleague.