As I once wise-cracked in one particularly irritating office situation, “There’s no need to drive me mad: I can walk that far”. Yes, humour is one way of handling anger in the workplace (although it’s much less patronising when your own anger is the target of the witticism). Less wittily, anger management is deeply entwined in Emotional Intelligence – a factor of adult life that became so important in the 1990s that it sprouted capital letters. Either a new – albeit debated – discipline had been born, or more of us had found more things to be angry about.
Although I’d thought in my younger days that (self-)righteous anger was the preserve of Young Turks, whatever their actual nationality, a cursory glance at the contemporary world does suggest that rage is … all the rage. Air rage, road rage and all their relatives are becoming a commonplace. 10 years ago, I might have wondered if “pet peeves” were something you might buy for the cat; in 2009, the expression is a cliché.
It’s hard to tell if the blogosphere is helping us get life off our chests or just setting a bad example: here are one or two random examples where you can try to decide. (Caution: some bad language is used: intemperance is as intemperance does.)
Maybe it’s part of the condition of modern life: we are attempting to live at too great a velocity, bombarded with the explicit expectations of bosses, peers, partners, family and friends as well as the implicit ones of the advertising industry’s incessant aspirational chatter. Life demands of us, so we over-demand of it. Some of us even occasionally rant along the lines of “I know my rights” – an assertation that one lawyer friend has confessed forces her to remain silent for fear that contradicting them might lead to a black eye.
If this argument does hold water, ‘modern life’ has been going on for more centuries than we realise. Alain de Botton – who we’ve discussed before – looks at anger in his book, The Consolations of Philosophy. More precisely, for those angered by inaccuracies, he looks at frustration and at the Greek philosopher Seneca’s advice on avoiding it. For Seneca – and de Botton – anger:
[…] results not from an uncontrollable eruption of the passions, but from a basic (and correctable) error of reasoning. […] it can only break out on the back of certain rationally held ideas; if we can only change the ideas, we will change our propensity to anger.
And in the Senecan view what makes us angry are dangerously optimistic notions about what the world and other people are like.”
Botton summarises, or concludes, one section of the book with what reads as an attempt to summarise the Senecan view in a single sentence:
We will cease to be so angry once we cease to be so hopeful.”
As aphoristic statements go, I have to say that very nearly got my proverbial goat before I thought a little more deeply. What Seneca is saying is that to manage our anger – by managing our frustration – we must manage our expectations. What can’t be changed must be accepted, and we should focus our energies on those areas of our lives that will not lead inexorably to dissatisfaction. The answer to not getting mad is neither to get even nor (delicious as Ivana Trump’s quote was) to get everything, but to get real.
The eternal human ‘problem’ of anger has been wrestled with by many a philosopher or religious figure, all of whom seem to preach caution:
Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
When anger rises, think of the consequences.”
Anger and intolerance are the twin enemies of correct understanding.”
Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”
But where does that get us? How do we instil hope – and the desire to change things – in others without setting them up to be frustrated? And angry with or at us as a result? It seems that – just like the things that frustrate us – anger itself is something we must accept and live with as constructively and positively as we can.
How we handle anger may depend on how we think about it, which is an area that is ripe with potential misconceptions – have a look at one list of Things that surprise anger management clients. (And there is a painfully human irony about having undue expectations of anger management.)
But it does strike me that anger has a range of antonyms – it is variously the opposite of happiness, peace, calm and contentment. Yet is also a flipside of complacency. Some things in business – and in life – deserve our anger and deserve the action that our anger can motivate. Two unlikely bedfellows might agree with that viewpoint, so let’s finish with a quote and a song – and a pointed reminder that ‘anger is an energy’:
Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power, that is not easy.”