Angry people

Why do people get so angry? It makes me mad.

It is the hardest thing to maintain your composure when someone you are speaking with takes an abrasive turn. That flash of anger always catches me by surprise. I never quite know how to deal with it. Very suddenly this is not the conversation I thought I was having.

We can be an angry species at times. Parents get angry on the rugby sidelines (which I think is ridiculous and unnecessary). People bring anger into meetings. Strange and savage things happen to the human psyche when we queue up for closing down sales.

Occasionally in my day job – or sometimes just at the supermarket – I meet people who harbour smouldering fires behind their eyes. You can tell they are looking for an argument.

I think some people enjoy being angry. They relish opposition. They arrive angry and they plan on leaving angry. They treat everyone they disagree with as the bad guy. It never solves anything.

Yet I understand the dark sweetness of that feeling. Life is unfair and people are complicated. Outrage can feel really good. It is the sort of righteous wrath that fuels many furious phone calls to customer service centres. I bet we’ve all made at least one of those phone calls.

Last year I got angry with our insurance company. It was a situation that wasn’t their fault but over a number of months the insurance company became a symbol of injustice. I had to remember that the woman on the other end of the phone was not my enemy. She was just doing her job. She probably had a family and a mortgage and a lack of sleep, just like me. I wasn’t going to help my cause by making her day worse.

It is my lifelong quest to master the noble art of amicable disagreement. I truly believe that it must be possible to have a pleasant conversation with someone you fundamentally disagree with. We are all humans after all. Why make an enemy when you could be making coffee instead?

That’s my ideal anyway. What actually happens is that I get defensive. When the other person bristles, my blood does a nasty little jig and I feel that fight-or-flight response kicking in.

I have to work hard not to match their tone or get sucked into distracting side issues. Arguments are not well-scripted dialogues that unfold in a logical fashion. They flinch and break off down rambling alleyways.

I know a few people who are unfazed by other people’s aggression. They are the Zen masters of difficult situations. They bring marshmallows to a knife fight and no one gets hurt. I wish I could do that.

The rest of us inevitably get swept away by the tension. Things escalate or end awkwardly. Later, in the middle of the night, we think of the perfect retort. “Aha, I’ll get them next time.” We save up our retort and lob it into the next available conversation.

So it may be that the person who is snapping at you is just trying to make up for lost ground from a previous argument with someone else.

I often make the mistake of assuming that other people are as reasonable as me. At least, I like to think I’m pretty reasonable. Perhaps I’m not. I do try to aim for a degree of level-headedness, even if I don’t quite get there in practice.

Anger and outrage have their place. Anger is the fuel for essential change where it is needed.

That doesn’t mean we should let our anger do the driving. Anger should power the engine but it is respect that should steer the conversation. Respect, a bit of Zen calm and maybe some marshmallows.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 10 July 2015. Reproduced with permission.