The Flow of Anger

When I landed a customer facing job at a major American airline, I wasn’t prepared to learn as much about anger as I did. Boy, was I surprised (but not too) that the airline’s index of recurrent training included the psychology of anger and how to manage the emotion.

To add insult to injury, I also lived with an angry person. After a day of experiencing angry passengers, I would come home and get some more anger piled on top. It’s exhausting on a myriad of levels, but at the same time, it’s manageable (sometimes).

This is What I’ve Learned

Anger is not innate, it’s 100% learned and 100% choice. For what seems like forever, I watched and absorbed and learned the complexities of the emotion. Males, mostly, aren’t taught how to manage emotions like frustration, hurt and most importantly, fear. The same with females, but to a lesser degree. Women are generally socialized to react in a more thoughtful manner to stuff. It all boils down to what is learned from your nascent environment. And on a more organic level, beyond question, I feel the impetus to anger is fear. Pin dropped.

Working at a major international airport five days a week for years and having too much downtime in between flights and not interested in hanging out in the break rooms with my peers, gossiping, I sat in the departure lounges, watching humanity walk by. It was absolutely fascinating. More than once per day, I helped a person identify why they were freaking out and to understand that, in most instances, nothing bad will happen as a result of a travel hiccup.

Let me give you a “for instance”. This situation occurred before electronic ticketing. Lost or “perceived” lost tickets used to be a huge, hairy issue. One day, a lady came running up to my gate completely flustered and angry and frustrated and yelling and all the things that come with fear. Everyone in the departure lounge stopped and stared at her, eyes wide and mouths open in shock. My gate partner was mumbling, “This is some bullshit, Paige. Call security.”

Instead, I let her emote. When she took a breath, I said, “I’m here to find a solution to your problem, so let’s work together and fix this. I promise that we will work it out, but first let’s find some privacy.”

I led her away from prying eyes and ears and sat down with her on the lounge seats. She deflated and de-escalated immediately. The key? I showed her that I cared by saying, “share with me the thing that is scaring you the most,” and she did. I gave her permission to be vulnerable. I assured her that even if her ticket was truly lost, she would still arrive at her destination. All the fear came tumbling out. Guess what? The ticket was in her bag the whole time (as was usually the case), but people tend to check their decorum at the ticket counter.

Allay the fear, allay the anger. I’m not saying it’s simple because it’s not, it takes some finesse, but acting as a guide to a less blurry picture and realization that shit is going to be OK is magic. Seeing the relief ripple through a person’s body is palpable and evident.

By no means am I saying that I don’t get angry or scared or anxious. I do. All the time. I’ve learned how to manage my anger, by helping others manage theirs.

The Unconsciously Angry

What about the people whose anger is the default? What I mean by “default” is the people who get angry at the slightest bit of wonky imperfection. Even if the data shows over and over that the outcome of whatever happened isn’t life threatening, they still flip the fuck out? In my observation, this group is mainly unconscious of their behavior. There are some outliers, thankfully.

This is a tough bunch to crack. The day ruiners. The distrusting. The controllers. In other words, the perfectionists. Perfectionists have a distaste for frivolous or perceived frivolousness types.

Exploring anger is rarely an option for this group. It’s easier to blow the fuck up than sit down with it and choose a different reaction to the fear. Why? Because taking a look inside and accepting that, “yup, all the bits of our lives are not in our control.” That is some scary ass shit right there.

Yeah, they might apologize for the explosion a few hours or a day later, but do they really mean it? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. It all depends on how willing they are to reveal vulnerability and accepting the non-exactness of life.

The worst part of anger is how it negatively affects the offender and the target(s) (unintended or not). The collateral damage runs deep. It’s like balling up a shiny, new piece of paper and although you try and try to smooth it out, the wrinkles remain forever.

In the Moment

In my experience, when it comes to managing an anger moment for the afraid, the logical approach flies out the window and humor becomes the substituent salve. Having a laugh kills fear. Laughing simply stops it dead. The humor approach is just plain hard to institute. I’ve seen it backfire like gasoline on a flame and oppositely, I’ve seen it act like water on a flame.

Using humor is my preferred way to defuse anger and frustration. It works even on the toughest exterior-ed people. Make sure you laugh with/soften the outburst with an aside and don’t giggle or laugh at it or at them. There is a difference.

Anger is a choice..the evidence is irrefutable. My unsolicited advice is when the anger shows up, make a choice to work through it and everyone ends up with a smile. Is an angry outburst worth it if you look at the bigger picture? Nah, most likely not.

“Easier said than done”, you might say.

Maybe, but I promise the more times you choose a smile over hostility, smiling becomes the default.

1 Comment

  1. I worked customer service, once upon a time. I was on the IT help desk for a mid-sized company of 1200 people or so. People were very nice, generally, but when something goes wrong with their computers it can get very frustrating for them, of course. This lady called up having some kind of problem with icons disappearing and her programs not where they should be, etc. I tried to jump in several times to start troubleshooting, but she kept going and was getting *really* angry! She started to direct her anger at me. Not for anything I had done — she didn’t allow me time to do anything yet — but just because I was the IT guy and she needed to take it out, fairly or unfairly. This went on until, at some point, the stress inside me suddenly came out as a laugh.

    I clapped my mouth shut. Laughing at someone is definitely not good customer service, even for a customer taking out her frustrations unfairly. But to my amazement she went silent for just a moment and then started speaking calmly, explaining what she needed from me. My laughter had defused the situation. Neither of us mentioned what had happened after that (and no apology, alas, but oh well). I fixed the problem and we both moved on with our days. That experience has stayed with me for all these years since.

    Liked by 1 person

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