Why is anger the most problematic emotion?
February 1, 2013 1:55 AM   Subscribe

My theory is that, of all the emotions, people find anger the hardest to deal with. I know people don't like strong emotions in general, but they seem to be worse at coping with others' anger than in the case of other strong emotions. Why is that?

Last time I got angry people around me were weak, avoidant and scared, or worse, told me it was wrong and rude to be angry. Some people said they never get angry, with the implication that no one else should either. Most people who said anything made me feel worse. Only one (out of a group of 6) managed to deal with the issue well (though she did a very good job).

My question is: why do people (even those with normally good emotional intelligence) find it so hard to respond effectively when someone is angry? Why is anger treated differently from other strong emotions?

PLEASE don't tell me how to manage my anger, or tell me I should not be angry because it is socially unacceptable. I know that already. I'm looking for responses that will help me understand other people's responses to anger.
posted by EatMyHat to Human Relations (51 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Anger is scary. Anger is a prelude to violence. If you are showing anger you are saying, even if you don't mean it, "I am getting ready to hurt someone." That's scary. No one likes to deal with the apparent risk of violence unless they too want violence.
posted by The otter lady at 2:00 AM on February 1, 2013 [38 favorites]

A lot depends in the cause if your anger. Is it reasonable in other people's eyes? If it's not reasonable, the person who is angry (unreasonable) becomes unreliable.

I think it's really basic and integral to our history as a (small) herd species. If one member is unreliable they become untrustworthy and thus cause anxiety and perhaps threat to the herd.
posted by Kerasia at 2:12 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

You presumably know that you're not about to start punching someone. Other people don't have the luxury of that insight, and react entirely appropriately.

You don't hold out your hand to a dog that's showing its teeth. We have the same instinct when interacting with angry humans.

Generally, people learn to contain strong emotions and express them in a way that communicates their intensity without making said people appear like they're unhinged or dangerous. These inhibitions are important, and are part of being a social animal. The full-on outpouring of anger or rage tends to be reserved for determining male dominance or establishing the group's territory.
posted by pipeski at 2:13 AM on February 1, 2013 [7 favorites]

Because anger is expressed physically (banging a table, shaking a fist, scraping a jawline) while 'those with normally good emotional intelligence' respond with words.
posted by mannequito at 2:25 AM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Separate the emotion from the behavior. People aren't scared of how angry people feel, they're scared of what angry people often do, i.e. act in unpredictable and threatening ways. It's not that one shouldn't feel anger; it's that regularly behaving angrily introduces an element of danger to relationships that should be safe, and can easily become abusive.
posted by jon1270 at 2:41 AM on February 1, 2013 [21 favorites]

Anger is a healthy emotion, but it is an indication of potential violence. No matter how certain the angry person is that he or she will not become violent, everyone else witnessing his or her anger has a gut feeling that says "this could become violent" - naturally, that is undesirable and can be frightening.
posted by molecicco at 2:53 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Last time I got angry people around me were weak, avoidant and scared, or worse, told me it was wrong and rude to be angry.

Forget about anger. Anger is fine. It's wrong and rude to scare people.

I get angry sometimes, but I don't scare people. Something you are doing is beyond normally expressed anger if you are literally scaring people.
posted by empath at 3:17 AM on February 1, 2013 [51 favorites]

Visible anger in another human sets off very strong fight or flight responses in many people, which they themselves can have real problems hiding or controlling. In the past I have faced very angry people in service jobs and have found the experience left me very shaken. My stomach dropped out, my jaw clenched and I was unable to think straight. My body was saying 'this person may be about to attack you.' This response can obviously be suppressed with training and repeated exposure, but for most people in the Western world, visible, unpredictable anger is a mercifully rare thing to have to face. So when you do face it, it's all the more impactful.

Further, you may think that you are simply displaying your displeasure or genuine anger and feel completely justified in doing so, but you have no idea of the personal histories of those around you. They may have been physically attacked in the past or lived with the anger or violence of a family member. They may not be able to disentangle your anger from their previous experiences of anger. I know several people who literally cannot deal with raised voices - it effectively shuts them down and leaves them visibly shaken.

There's also the question of context. Societal expectations and norms aside, I personally believe that no job is worth being shouted at or feeling physically threatened. If someone decides they're going to scream at me, they'll have my notice the next day. Even if we lost the account, upset the customer, whatever, it is not a matter of life and death - screaming at people like a child is not an appropriate response. There are exceptions to this, of course - soldiering springs to mind, where a shouting at is part of the discipline that keeps people alive (although most of the 'anger' there is feigned, part of the training process), but in general, in the modern industrialised West, displaying anger in the workplace is pointless alpha human bullshit that helps nobody, least of all the person getting angry. You can BE angry, but doing the human equivalent of baring your teeth accomplishes nothing. Expressing anger calmly, without raging, will do a lot more, even if it sounds like an oxymoron.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:22 AM on February 1, 2013 [10 favorites]

A lot of people may have had poor childhood experiences related to anger, and it could be a form of fear. Even if nothing physical happened, a mother or father getting angry could have equaled Bad Things, especially if the person did anything other than act meek, and especially especially because children generally can't do anything about it.

I had this experience and I still freeze up if someone becomes visibly angry; it's as if I'm transported back to being a 13 year old girl who's helpless to do anything about what's going on. Soyeah, if you got angry I'd probably avoid you and if you were angry WITH me I'd probably turn into a scared puppy.
posted by Autumn at 3:40 AM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Because the type of anger you're talking about is threatning and other strong emotions aren't. Angry people are unpredictable and often violent. Someone sobbing, for example, is probably not going to start throwing punches. Plus, most strong emotions have obvious responses- they're due to a need. If someone is sad, you try to comfort them. But there's no obvious response to anger in order to alleviate it other than acting "weak" because anger is something people use to get power. And its something that can quickly spiral out of control.
posted by windykites at 3:40 AM on February 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

Anger is difficult to deal with as an emotion because anger is not an emotion. Anger is the physical manifestation of other emotions. Once you figure out what emotions are causing the anger, then you can deal with these emotions, and therefore the anger.
The problamatic part is dealing with these underlying emotions first, then the anger.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 4:31 AM on February 1, 2013 [13 favorites]

Your premise isn't true. Many people find sadness or helplessness harder to deal with and mask it with anger because it makes them feel in control.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:34 AM on February 1, 2013 [12 favorites]

Last time I got angry people around me were weak, avoidant and scared, or worse, told me it was wrong and rude to be angry. Some people said they never get angry, with the implication that no one else should either. Most people who said anything made me feel worse. Only one (out of a group of 6) managed to deal with the issue well (though she did a very good job).

A lot of your question depends on subjective inturpretations of the situation. How you expressed your anger, what they did to appear "weak", what that one person did to 'deal with it well.'

It kind of seems like you were personally offended by their emotional response to YOUR emotional response, which makes answering this question difficult.

why do people (even those with normally good emotional intelligence) find it so hard to respond effectively when someone is angry? Why is anger treated differently from other strong emotions?

The simplest explination is people don't have a script for all behaviors. I doubt that people are cowering in a corner if you are calmly standing there saying "I am very angry that this is happening. What can we do to fix it." I'm not telling you how to handle your anger, but understanding their respones to YOUR emotions means having to understand what exactly it is in your expression of those emotions that people are responding to.

People have no idea what you are feeling, really. they can only react to what you express- so try not to take it personally. It's not your anger that is making people avoid conflict, or sob or whatever it is that makes you think they are weak- it's whatever you are saying or doing that brings their attention to your emotions.
posted by Blisterlips at 4:41 AM on February 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

That's interesting about anger not actually being an emotion, I'll have to think about that.

What I was going to say is that anger is a powerful and seductive emotion. It makes people feel powerful, it gives them permission to do and say things they were holding back. That scares other people, especially when they don't necessarily agree with the anger.
posted by gjc at 4:42 AM on February 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

Your premise isn't true.

Yup. I grew up in a house where anger was a pretty common emotion--two short-tempered parents and a very short-tempered brother. None of it ever turned physically violent, so the way that I learned to react to angry people is, "ha, look at this jackass spouting off again, what a waste of time. Yeah, you go ahead and impotently piss and moan, I'm just going to sit here and eat this sandwich and wait for you to stop acting like such a petulant child."

On the other hand, my family was REALLY bad at showing other emotions, so I get scared and nervous and uneasy when people around me start crying, for instance. Just don't know how to react, don't know how to deal with it, just want the other person to stop, so I tend to say all the wrong things and basically just avoid them.

It depends what you're used to.
posted by phunniemee at 4:47 AM on February 1, 2013 [9 favorites]

They were "weak, avoidant and scared"? What exactly were you doing here? People don't act that way just because someone says "I'm angry". What do you expect people with good emotional intelligence to do when someone starts yelling, get confrontational? That tends to end poorly. If you're doing things that cow those around you, they're responding to how you're acting not to how you're feeling.

In 6 year of dealing with executives with high-stress jobs running a very large organization, I've never seen someone yell or raise their voice at another person. Not once. Nor have I seen a friend raise their voice in anger any time since 2001 (I remember the last time quite clearly). The only people I ever see act out angry emotions are my kids (because they're kids), obviously disturbed strangers on the street and once in a blue moon my wife (which is ok because I trust her not to stab me).

People who can't keep their anger under wraps when it's obviously socially unacceptable can't control themselves OR don't know the rules of the game. Either way, they're volatile. Disengaging with them is a nice way to avoid escalating the situation to someone getting beaten to death.
posted by pjaust at 4:48 AM on February 1, 2013 [26 favorites]

nthing the majority view, I can't deal with emoted anger because it creates a real instinctive fear of violence, and a sense of helplessness because anger isn't susceptible to reasoning, I just have to wait for it to blow over.
I can empathize when someone is feeling anger and expressing it in a controlled way, but can only fear when someone is emotionally angry.
Anger is a real primary emotion, and it's not felt or expressed solely by men. I don't think it's a power play, and if it were, that would not be a reason why it's more difficult to deal with in others.
I think it's a scary feeling to control you because it's so destructive in its raw expression (although it can be channeled into constructive activity). Good luck.
posted by Gomoryhu at 5:01 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's a similar feeling to seeing a big dog in the street - it's probably very nice, but it's big enough to hurt you if it wants to. And if you've been bit by a dog before, you'd be twice as likely to cross the street.

However, some find people crying or being upset very hard to deal with, because they don't know the appropriate response or it makes them feel embarrassed. People often ignore those crying in public places. I don't think anger is the only emotion that people instinctively want to avoid.
posted by mippy at 5:20 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's hard to respond "effectively" to someone who is angry--particularly if that person is angry enough to be scaring you--because it's like being forced to play chicken with someone who really just wants to run you over. Everyone else is trying to get out of there with the least amount of damage possible, while the angry person is looking for someone to hurt.
posted by colfax at 5:21 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is very culturally specific. In the US anger is almost taboo, but in other countries anger is ok to some extent while other behaviours are taboo. E.g. in Northern Europe anger is not (that) taboo so it's not a faux-pas to be angry when something goes awry.

Similar to the f-word being taboo in US schools but not in Northern Europe and therefore those citizens have to watch their mouth when visiting US, especially in business settings.
posted by flif at 5:25 AM on February 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

You might also want to consider that a person who acts in a way that makes others respond in the way you describe acts selfish. It also sounds like you feel to have the right to express in ways that disturbs others (emotionally as well as simply their evening or whatever) and at the same time expect them to deal with it in a way that you like (effective by your standard) or you lose respect for them by questioning their emotional intelligence.
To answer your question: people might choose not to deal with it despite their capacity for dealing with people expressing strong emotions. What is the benefit from their perspective to engage and possibly enable someone who expresses strong emotions?
posted by travelwithcats at 5:30 AM on February 1, 2013 [7 favorites]

I know a few people who think they are justified in showing anger in what they perceive to be a "moderate" and "rational" way. The reality of everyone that witnesses their anger is they appear to be competely out of control emotionally and physically, and escalation into physical or verbal violence may happen unpredictably. Numerous discussions do not sway them from their own perception of how logical they feel about expressing their anger and they discount and minimise others' fear of them. They also feel anger is very cathartic to them - they vent hurtful, can't-be-taken-back words, dump their pain on everyone else, feel listened too and better; leaving the people around them to process the shock and damage of an emotional tornado without then offering any support to the people they exploded on (and actually actively diminishing other people's version of what happened and using derogatory language like calling them "weak" and blaming them for not handling the anger in the way the angry person wanted them too). Your perception of your own anger may be skewed in other words.

Most of the time most conversations have a give and take; with an angry person they usually are unable to listen effectively and they process all information through the filter of their current hieghtened emotional state. A conversation with an angry person does not have the mutual goal of solving a challenge together; a conversation with an angry person has the goal of either de-escalating the anger or removing the non-angry person from the conversation. Look at your own words: "people were weak, avoidant and ....made me feel worse", why do you think it is anyone's responsibility to deal with -your- emotions and why do you not feel responsible for dealing with their emotions at the same time? That is the narcassistic perspective of a toddler in a tantrum. The reason most people do not handle other angry people well is because most people do not feel they are responsible for solving other people's emotional outbursts - especially if it is accompanied with contempt, insults, shouting, physical aggressiveness, or other unpleasent out-of-control behaviour or if the anger is rooted in prior actions the witnesses to your anger had nothing to do with (you had a shitty day, your lack of proper role models in how to deal with personal anger appropriately, unresolved unrelated prior issues, feeling hungry, hurt, tired) but hey, my the waitress is slow in bringing me my food so I am gonna just blow up at her to vent.

A lot of this is cultural and gender specific as well; a woman's reaction to a man's anger will most likely be different to another man's reaction especially with mitigating effects like feeling isolated, having an audience, or a lack (or an extreme) of experience with someone expressing anger in the way you are choosing. Some cultures have regular displays of anger in relationships where people understand their roles and feel comfortable in them. When YOU are angry you may have a script in mind but everyone else is reading from a different play book and your anger is preventing you from noticing or responding appropriately to them as individuals.
posted by saucysault at 6:01 AM on February 1, 2013 [23 favorites]

Because when you act overly angry you are forcing people to decide how to deal with your shit. And people generally don't like having to defend themselves, or having to placate someone else. Being overly angry is a sign you may not be in control and are willing to do harm to others.
posted by edgeways at 6:07 AM on February 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

people around me were weak

In what way were they weak? Why do you describe it that way? Were they not responding to you, or were they trying to be conciliatory, or what? Would "not weak" have been someone getting in your face and yelling at you, or telling you firmly to lower your voice (or your fists, as the case may be)?

(Not needing you to answer these questions here, but you might want to think about the language you used to describe the reactions of people to your expression of anger, which you've interestingly declined to describe.)

Once, a long time ago, my normally calm and funny boss got furious about something and literally yelled in my face, then stomped out to go to the gym. I sat in frozen shock for several minutes. Was I being weak? Avoidant? Scared? I didn't feel any of those things - I was just stunned by his behavior and couldn't think of how to respond in that moment. When he got back to the office, I told him flatly that he could never speak to me that way again (and he didn't).

It's fine to be angry. The way in which you express it may be counterproductive.
posted by rtha at 6:26 AM on February 1, 2013 [11 favorites]

I agree with the general sentiment being expressed here and would add that part of the reason is that your anger becomes their responsibility. Your question expresses this; " Only one (out of a group of 6) managed to deal with the issue well (though she did a very good job)". You don't talk about how you are trying to deal with the issue yourself, you make coping with your emotions their job and people find that hard to deal with.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:30 AM on February 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Can you clarify what you mean by "anger?" Because there's a spectrum, from somewhere around annoyance/frustration to something much larger like rage. There's also a large range of manifestations of anger, such as simple words or crying or anxiety in addition to the types of manifestations a lot of people are talking about here, such as yelling or cursing or physical violence. If you give us specific examples of the sorts of things you're angry about, how you feel, and how you express those feelings externally, it might help to clarify some of the answers you're getting.

I'll just say that I find very difficult to deal with most emotions that make people behave in ways that are wildly unpredictable or unusual for them, especially when they seem to need me to respond in a certain way or to do something about it. Whether that's my normally stoic friend weeping because a family member just died, or my normally calm friend yelling and pounding her fists because she's pissed off, it makes me uneasy. And when people are expecting a specific sort of response from me, whether it's that I shriek in happiness with them or that I calm them down, that makes me especially nervous. Because what if I don't feel the appropriate way and express my feelings "right?" What will the other person do? Does that mean that I should suppress my own feelings about the matter (which could be anything from annoyance that they're bothering me to joy to jealousy to schadenfraude to fear) in order to focus on them?

The bottom line is that whatever you're feeling is yours. You can ask your loved ones for help and support, but you can't expect other people to drop whatever they're doing and ignore their own feelings in order to manage your feelings and give you the responses you want. That's true whether you're happy or sad or angry or afraid or excited. People get anxious and upset when other people seem to be demanding something of them, especially when they don't know exactly what it is the other person wants, and especially when there's reason for them to believe that the other person will do something bad if the desired response isn't given. That's why people sometimes feel uncomfortable around anger, but it's also why they feel uncomfortable around depressive sadness, or around anxiety, or even around unfettered joy if that joy seems to come with the expectation that other people will get on board in some way (see: every AskMe that begins "My sister is getting married, and she's planning an elaborate wedding, but she's now upset that I'm not as enthusiastic about the planning as she is.")

The problem is usually not just about your feelings. It may be how you express your feelings, but most importantly, the problem is in having expectations that other people should meet your emotional needs, failing to explicitly communicate those needs, and then reacting unpredictably and/or negatively when those needs aren't met.
posted by decathecting at 6:39 AM on February 1, 2013 [9 favorites]

In the book My Beautiful Genome by Lone Frank, she talks about an experiment where subjects were put into an MRI scanner and shown unknown faces with different emotional expressions. When they were shown pictures of angry faces (or pictures of fearful faces), The subjects showed activity in the amygdala which is an area of the brain involved in signaling negative emotions such as fear, disgust, and loathing.

The experiment was partially about genetics. Those subjects that had shorter SERT gene variants reacted with significantly higher amygdala activity than subjects with longer SERT variants.

So basically, what I think this means is that when you show anger (or fear) people have a structure in their brain that causes them to react against it. And some people are genetically programmed to react more strongly than others. This was interesting to me as an anxious person (though not an angry one) to see why people react negatively when I show my anxiety.
posted by hazyjane at 6:40 AM on February 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

I don't know that this idea is true, that anger is hardest to deal with. It seems to me that the intensity of the emotion, and the ability of the person having it to manage it, determines how hard it is to deal with.

That said, I agree with others that your anger frightened people, and their fear is difficult for them. Their reaction was that you were not just angry but had or might lose it, becoming unstable, violent and dangerous. Like others have said, were probably hard wired to have a flight or fight response to danger -- which includes anger of the type you were exhibiting.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:52 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I also think your premise is wrong that their responses were inappropriate, showed low emotional intelligence, or otherwise did not handle your anger well. Their responses may not have been what your angry self wanted. But, I submit, their responses were most likely correct, and you need to think hard about that.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:00 AM on February 1, 2013 [12 favorites]

It is in part because of social conditioning. Civilization is an artificial construct primarily meant to allow human beings to interact with each other without violence happening every time there is a conflict of interests. Therefore, the emotions that can lead to violence are made taboo in a civilized society. I would speculate that if you went to a less civilized area, perhaps one with more crime or an ongoing civil war, anger would be a much less proscribed emotion.

That said, it's important to distinguish between "being angry" and "losing control." When I get extremely angry, it's more of a cold calculated emotion - instead of getting outwardly furious, I simply think about what methods I can use to get even with the person in question, and the wheels in my head start turning to analyze that problem. I'm totally capable of smiling and acting polite while being completely furious with somebody. Because my anger doesn't involve loss of control, it's much more acceptable in society, even though my anger tends to be more damaging because it is focused and goal-oriented. It's not the anger itself that people are conditioned to fear, you see: it's the loss of self-control.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 7:03 AM on February 1, 2013

Anger is lazy. My default emotional response to 99% of unpleasant events is all-consuming rage. Stubbed toe? Fuck this staircase. Boss asking me to do extra work? Fuck it, I'll quit. Anger is your body's way of say, "I don't know what this is, but get it away from me." It being the real emotion at the bottom of your anger, which is usually fear, or hurt, or disappointment. Think about where anger comes from – evolutionarily, I mean. It's an aggressive impulse designed to motivate you to escape a threat.

So I would guess that people respond poorly to anger because it's dishonest. It signals a lack of emotional effort on the part of the angered.
posted by deathpanels at 7:03 AM on February 1, 2013 [15 favorites]

I had first written a much longer answer but I'm just going for the personal anecdote here.

Why do I find anger problematic? I don't, when properly expressed.

But I was married to someone who very slowly and delicately imprisoned me and our children with his angry outbursts. It never mattered why he was angry (because his reasons were all stupid), but my own experience has taught me that someone who starts yelling, who slams doors, who rages, rants and rails...this is a person who is going to escalate into further abuse because almost everything makes them angry.

And then people start to get hurt.
posted by kinetic at 7:04 AM on February 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

PLEASE don't...tell me I should not be angry because it is socially unacceptable

Sure, but whatever you did, that left people "scared," sounds like something that went beyond "anger" and quite clearly into "socially unacceptable" territory.

why do people (even those with normally good emotional intelligence) find it so hard to respond effectively when someone is angry?

What do you feel the "effective" response is? I would consider withdrawing from the person displaying a loss of control to be a first-rate response, but it seems you've characterised that behaviour as negative ("weak, avoidant"). I don't see any point to engaging with anybody who appears to me to be angry to the point of being scary. I would view engaging with a tantruming adult as "weak" -- why not exert self-control and just walk away from that petulant display?

worse, told me it was wrong and rude to be angry

Why is that "worse"? You had your question here partially answered -- plenty of people consider the sort of display you seem to've made to be vulgar -- at best, immature, at worst, dangerous.
posted by kmennie at 7:39 AM on February 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

why do people (even those with normally good emotional intelligence) find it so hard to respond effectively when someone is angry?

Even if I grant that "emotional intelligence" is a valid concept, I do not understand your question. How did you want your coworkers to respond to your anger? Cower in fear? Grab you by the throat and begin combat? Laugh it off? Your question assume that there was a "right" way to respond to your outburst. Were you using your anger as a means to end i.e. to elicit certain actions out of your coworkers? Please forgive me, but I would not want to work there. My response would be to feel pity for you, although I do not know how "effective" you think that would be.

Now here are my comments, which have nothing to do with what is "socially acceptable" or not:

I disagree with the comments that anger is not a problem, fine, or heaven forfend, healthy. When we are angry, we are blind. It clouds judgment and precedes sadness. We are not at peace with ourselves or others. This applies even when we are angry for what initially appears to be a good reason. This doesn't mean merely to hide your anger in your head like a viper under a rock - it must be obliterated entirely. That includes anger towards not only people, but also animals and inanimate objects like deathpanels' staircase. Yes, this is a struggle that is blood to the end.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:43 AM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I actually disagree with a lot of the people in here who say that anger is "lazy", or that something about the way you manage anger is scaring people. However, misused or poorly-managed anger can indeed be lazy, or frightening; it's easy to use your anger as an excuse to give up and stop dealing with something that's gotten problematic.

And because anger is such a gut-level emotion, there's a greater risk of an angry person lashing out in violent ways; people in the grips of other emotions, like fear or sadness, usually don't behave violently towards other people. A sad person will withdraw into themselves or burst out crying, which may be uncomfortable for other people to see but isn't potentially dangerous for them; a scared person may panic, which may be alarming for bystanders to see but not directly threatening. An angry person, though, may act violently upon someone else, which makes poorly-managed anger uniquely more threatening.

So, while we may all have run into people who have mis-managed any one of a number of emotions in the past, it's the people who have mis-managed their anger who've made the bigger impression on us; we don't necessarily develop an aversion to fear after seeing the kid in third grade who got scared of something on the playground and panicked and ran to the teacher, but we would DEFINITELY remember the kid on the playground who got mad and tried to punch us, and that would leave us with an aversion to other angry people.

There's another angle to consider, though, about anger - but not about anger as such, but about the different ways people express it, and the different ways people were raised seeing it expressed. I had a roommate who had me on tenterhooks for the first couple months I lived there, because she would frequently and loudly holler about the tiniest things; computer trouble, a shoelace breaking, not being able to find a note she'd written to herself...and it would scare me to death each time, because I'd just be minding my own business and suddenly she'd holler "oh, come ON!" and angrily pound the table in frustration and I'd think "wow, she is REALLY, REALLY mad." Except - she was doing this every day, so I was walking around thinking she was constantly on the verge of a tri-state killing spree or something, and I'd just hide in my room and stay out of her way.

Then finally she blew up like that once when I was in the same room and she saw me wince and cower - I was a wreck by this point - and she asked why I was scared. And we had a long, long talk in which we finally worked out that - in her family, the big huge loud outbursts like that were a cathartic release for minor anger, while in my family, loud outbursts were what accompanied major anger. So she was actually nowhere near the level of anger I'd thought she'd been at; it's just that I grew up with anger being handled completely differently. Once we sorted that out, I felt a lot better -- knew that her outbursts were more like when I grumbled, and I knew not to get worried about them.

What I'm getting at is - people may be attributing a greater degree of anger to someone's outburst than they actually feel, simply because they learned to express it differently and don't know it any other way. So they see someone reacting in a certain way and are thinking they're angrier than they actually are.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:44 AM on February 1, 2013 [11 favorites]

Great question and comments. Sometimes someone else's anger can be uncomfortable because you yourself may be "going along to get along." Why would someone go along to get along? Because, as the OP noted, getting angry is frowned upon esp. if you're a member of a non-privileged group.

Example: 10 people in line at the supermarket checkout, cashier yapping to a friend and not doing their job, 10 people exchanging eye rolls, tapping feet, etc. Person 5 in line finally says loudly "Excuse me, but there's a line here!" All other 9 people in line give hostile or astonished looks to person 5, like he's the bad guy.
posted by Currer Belfry at 8:00 AM on February 1, 2013

Anger is very often directed at a person (or appears to be), while other emotions are not as much. So, you are angry at someone, but you aren't sad at them. People react very differently to emotions that are directed at them specifically (and so seem like a threat) versus emotions that someone else is just generally feeling. Even when anger isn't directed at anyone in particular, we feel it as though it were directed at us.
posted by ssg at 8:04 AM on February 1, 2013 [7 favorites]

Last time I got angry people around me were weak, avoidant and scared, or worse, told me it was wrong and rude to be angry.

This really makes me wonder 1) what you were angry about and 2) how you expressed your anger.

A lot depends on the situation. If you were abusing power - yelling at a server, who cannot yell back, because they made a simple mistake - that's one thing.

If you were angry because of an unhealthy situation that the other people are unwilling to face - for example, if you had it out with your brother because he drove drunk, and the people who had a problem with your anger were his enablers - that's another thing.

why do people find it so hard to respond effectively when someone is angry? Why is anger treated differently from other strong emotions?

Because anger is the emotion that often precedes bad things - violence, blame, accusations, abuse. Most people control their anger and are careful how they express it. Someone who expresses their anger in an uncontrolled is more likely to escalate to those bad things. Most of us have had some bad experiences with people who didn't do a good job of handling their anger. Response becomes less about dealing with the source of the emotion and more about protecting ourselves and trying to determine exactly how dangerous they may be.

What do you think is an "effective" response?

Emotional intelligence is basically about taking responsibility for your own emotions. Were you taking responsibility for your anger or asking other people to do that for you?
posted by bunderful at 8:06 AM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

When I clicked on this thread, I was surprised at what your question ended up being. When I saw the heading I assumed you were asking why the personal experience of anger was difficult. Instead, you seem to be asking about why other people cower in fear and do all these unreasonably weak things when you are angry.

I think anger is actually a difficult emotion from a personal experience perspective, because you're ultimately responsible for your own feelings and how you deal with them and it can be really, really hard to problem solve when you're angry. Also, anger can be closely linked to shame because people frequently do things they end up ultimately regretting in the heat of angry. In my mind, it's really really okay to get upset about unfair things that happen to you. But then its your responsibility to solve the problem or state your boundaries without raging at people and that can be hard to do. And anger is hard to sit with. So that's why I think anger is a difficult emotion. From what you said, I don't think the people who you got angry with were weak.

I also don't think it's socially unacceptable to be angry. I think it's socially unacceptable to vent your anger inappropriately.
posted by mermily at 8:10 AM on February 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Anger has a physiology.

The above explains part of the physiology of the one who is angry, but clearly it is adaptive to react in a certain way to placate or avoid the attention of someone showing the outward signs. If these people aren't as invested in what's making you angry as you are it's not worth their while to engage you unless you make it inevitable by proceeding to actual violence.
posted by rocketpup at 8:12 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Workplaces where anger is, if not "appropriate", then at least accepted, are things like the entertainment industry, an investment bank, or a securities trading firm: where millions of dollars are at stake on the basis of caprice, and all that money could be lost at any moment. It's also common in a hospital operating room, especially when resident physicians-in-training are involved. In that case, the smallest screwup can kill someone, and lives are at stake.

Unless either of these things are true, most people will react to open displays of anger with, "what's your problem? What is so important that is worth lashing out in anger, over?"

Last time I got angry people around me were weak, avoidant and scared, or worse, told me it was wrong and rude to be angry

These standards are reversed: the correct response is to tell the person that it is wrong and rude to be angry. The worse option is to act "weak, avoidant, and scared."
posted by deanc at 8:36 AM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Everyone has had experiences where anger has lead to violence, or at least an angry person has not responded to cool logic, and because of this, people generally shy away from angry people.

You don't approach an angry person with your own anger and expect them to respond rationally. You expect the first angry person to get angrier, and possibly start fighting with you. Anger is not an effective way to communicate. People generally try to talk an angry person down, so emotions aren't so prevalent in the other person, and they can communicate based on logic.

For a stupid example, take the Hulk. A mild-mannered guy, Bruce Banner, gets angry. When he gets angry, he gets giant, green, and starts tearing shit apart. He becomes the personification of anger: lash out at the world, fuck the consequences. Do people try to chat or reason with the Hulk? Generally, no.

It's fine to get upset. But getting angry is letting yourself respond in a (generally) irrational way to how upset you are. In your original comment, why were you angry? How did that 1 person in 6 managed to deal with the issue? And how did the others make you feel worse?
posted by filthy light thief at 9:53 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I consider myself to be highly emotionally intelligent. I have had multiple bad experiences with poorly expressed anger in the past, including intimidation and violence. I believe that I deal well with well expressed (clear regarding cause of the emotion as well as clear regarding desired outcomes of expressing the emotion) anger - whether that anger is expressed in a loud or quiet voice. I do not deal well with poorly expressed (incoherent) anger (I will remain calm and empathetic but noncommittal so as to avoid unpredictable behavior) - or incoherent sadness or incoherent joy (same response). I don't think that this is a case of you needing to "manage" your anger - being angry (or sad or joyful) is fine - but if you expect people who are not mind-readers to deal effectively with your emotions, expressing them clearly (cause and desired outcomes) will get your farther. You might also wish to examine whether someone remaining calm & noncommittal (withholding decisive action until your behavior is less chaotic) may appear to you like weakness.
posted by pammeke at 9:59 AM on February 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Agree with the consensus above. You sound like a bully. Think about what kind of question the other people would ask here:

"How do you deal with a rage-filled x who terrifies you but you have to deal with them?"

"Why does x always blame me for their anger?"

"So and so just exploded on me again and I don't know how to respond. I don't ever want to have anything to do with them again. How do I get out of this situation?"
posted by 3491again at 11:04 AM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Some people said they never get angry, with the implication that no one else should either.

What most people mean when they say they "never get angry" is not that they never feel anger. They mean they rarely express their anger in a socially unacceptable way like shouting or engaging in other verbally or physically threatening behavior. I'm one of those people who would say I rarely get angry, and it's not because I don't feel angry. It's because I almost never raise my voice to someone in anger, and the only way in which I make my anger someone else's problem is to maybe get a bit snappish.

People are generally going to respond poorly when you make your anger their problem, because outside of a handful of high stress situations/careers, your anger isn't their problem, and they can't really do anything about it. Even when your anger is caused by circumstances beyond your control or anyone else's control, it's still your anger. It's your shit to deal with, and in general, it is not one of the strong emotions that can be shared productively with others. I know that anger can sometimes seem like an effective way of motivating people to do your bidding or to otherwise behave in a way that will keep you from getting angry, but it's really not for many of the reasons people have described above (childhood associations with anger, fear of violence, etc.). Angry people induce stress and anxiety in others, and those are not inappropriate or "weak" reactions, they're entirely rational ones.
posted by yasaman at 11:08 AM on February 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

I think the answers above show what a wide range of experiences people have with other people's anger. For a lot of people, having someone be angry at you (or even near you, whether or not it's directed at you) means the likelihood of violence or other unpredictable threatening behavior. You may have known that you didn't intend to threaten anyone despite your anger, but the people around you didn't automatically know that.

In my family, anger didn't mean violence but it meant verbal conflict, which none of us dealt with well and which caused me a huge amount of stress. I spent many years trying to slide through life without triggering anger in the people around me, until a therapist kindly pointed out that anger was sometimes appropriate, in me and in other people. So now I think the key for me is whether it feels fair. If you were unfairly angry at me, I might seem weak or avoidant because I would think you were being irrational and I wouldn't want to engage with you. If your anger was warranted, I still wouldn't like it, but I would understand on some level where it was coming from. Your question doesn't fully describe the situation, but it seems like part of the issue stems from other people's complicated and varied histories with anger, and part stems from the way you get angry (not whether you're allowed to be angry, just how you express it).
posted by eseuss at 11:25 AM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

people around me were weak, avoidant and scared

Anger is a pretty solitary emotion. There are exceptions like a crowd of angry people at a protest, but usually it's not something others can participate in, it's just you. For most people, if they witness someone else's happiness, it will probably make them smile; if they see someone crying it will on some level make them sad. But seeing someone get angry is like, "OK, what am I supposed to do about it?" And the answer is usually "stay out of their way until they calm down." Which can be interpreted as weak, avoidant, and scared. It's extremely unlikely that people will get angry along with you or on your behalf, and even if they do they'll probably express it in a fairly muted fashion.

That's assuming you were expressing anger around them, not at them. If it was at them, of course they were scared! Adults who haven't learned to control themselves are unpredictable and therefore threatening. (And that's even without any past trauma related to angry people.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 12:38 PM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I feel for you. I know what it's like to be mad. I've been the guy who loses his temper because generic coworker has once again failed to exercise due diligence, and I've raised my voice, thrown things, and even gotten into a shouting match with another hothead.

And I've also been on the receiving end of that, and you know what? Fuck that guy. I'm not his therapist, I'm his coworker (or customer, or vendor). He starts yelling at me on the phone, I tell him I'm going to hang up if he doesn't calm down, and then I do it. He yells at me in person, I walk away. He sends me a shitty email, I delete it without action. I got 99 problems, and his anger isn't one.

Now, if we're in the conference room, and his anger is clearly directed towards something else, and we're all talking about how to solve this problem, then everything's good. Or I honest-to-goodness genuinely foul something up, and he's angry without being threatening, then I'm going to work even harder to fix the situation. Or we're getting buried under an influx of production, and a machine goes down, and he goes off the handle because god bless everything, it's just too much. But in none of those situations do I have to deal with his anger, because he's dealing with it.

So if you want to know why I walked away from you when you were ranting and raving, it's because it's not my job to listen to your shit.
posted by disconnect at 12:45 PM on February 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

I agree x100 with EmpressCallipygos, in that people's responses to expressed anger (not aggression - if you are expressing aggression that's different) will very widely depending on their background, culture, and personality.

I disagree strongly with the majority of the posts that are saying either that anger is unequivocally unproductive, or wrong, or "not an emotion" (yeah, I've heard that argument, and I disagree. I am not always angry because I'm hurt, or disappointed. Sometimes I am ANGRY because something is not as it should be - an injustice in the world, for example - and I am truly, emotionally, ANGRY at that, with no sense of personal wounding or sadness or anything of the sort, and I think anger is a completely valid and appropriate response to those types of things). I also think that anger, when it is for a valid reason and appropriately channeled, can be very productive. I've used anger as the fuel to leave my ex, spend three weeks living in a car, and get a new apartment and job and improve my life because god dammit you are not going to fucking destroy my life anymore. That's a good thing.

But I agree with the general consensus that people are much more likely to have had a negative/frightening/violent experience with an angry person than with other emotions, and therefore a lot of people DO have a gut reaction (or a statistically-appropriate general sense of caution) when they see someone who is obviously angry. Even if that anger is not being used harmfully. Because they know that SOME PEOPLE (even if you aren't one of them!) behave badly when angry, and they don't want to get in the middle of it. That much, is a fact, and yeah I do question your assessment of this avoidance as necessarily "weak."

Personal experience: I grew up with a very bad-tempered father, a lot of conflict (and violence) and six brothers who I adore but who habitually bicker and debate loudly and passionately about almost anything. While I rejected the violence, I absorbed the tendency to approach every topic that was important to me with an overly-assertive and exaggerated tone that, I eventually discovered, turned people off of what I was actually trying to convey, and made my arguments less effective. As an adult I have had to learn to temper my natural excitement and over-expressiveness somewhat so as to not intimidate people, although I am never violent or abusive and my logic is almost always intact while I'm doing this (if someone points it out I will stop, for the record). This is a thousandfold more important when the emotion being expressed includes anger, for reasons listed above.

I have also learned that many people do have a truly visceral hatred of raised voices, even if the raised voices aren't dangerous or even bad (think: big boisterous Italian-family-dinner type interaction). I disagree that everyone with that communication style is rude or inconsiderate or abusive, but I think it's socially wise and mature to realize that not everyone is ok with it, and to learn to temper yourself when with these people.
posted by celtalitha at 12:47 PM on February 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

For the record: my ex, who WAS abusive and whose anger actually did eventually turn violent, absolutely hated the loud, spirited, boisterous conversation-style. He thought that the normal conversations between my brothers and I were appallingly confrontational and inappropriate, and did not understand that we functioned within a set of unspoken guidelines where we never actually hurt or insulted each other, we just laughed and bickered and debated in a way that made him simmer with offended rage. He was the type to not express anger at all, until, well, he did.

I thought his eternal (purported) even-headed-ness was a sign of intelligence, and found it refreshing and attractive, until I realized that it actually housed a lot of contempt and misogyny and passive-aggression, and a complete inability to deal with negative emotion of any sort.

So I take people who say "expressed anger is BAD BAD BAD" with a very very strong grain of salt.
posted by celtalitha at 12:53 PM on February 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Anger isn't terribly productive if you want change. Explain what you want and why you want it, and teach people how to make the change. Investigate reasons why the change may be difficult; maybe the person doesn't understand what you want, or is unable to do a step in the process. Anger may be a natural response sometimes. If someone does something terrible, like stealing a coworker's wallet, and you have a genuine response of anger at this act, then a reasonable expression of anger is okay. But a lot of anger is just 1 person being loud, not listening, and closely resembles a tantrum. Anger, as noted, has physiological effects on the person expressing it, and the people exposed to it are likely to respond in a visceral manner, with fear, avoidance, or maybe with a challenge in response. None of this tends to be effective, unless you want the dominance order decided by chest-beating, competitive urination, or outright dueling.

It's often said that expressing anger is good for you - "getting it out." In fact, angry expressiveness tends to keep you angry longer.

In my experience, once a person is angry, reasoning is ignored. I prefer reason.
posted by theora55 at 2:22 PM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

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