Bryan Caplan  

If the Angry Could Hear What the Calm Do Not Say

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Dear Angry Person,

I can tell that you're angry at me again.  I think I understand your complaint, though I have trouble understanding why this specific issue is upsetting you on this specific day.  But based on past experience, asking for clarification will only make you angrier, without helping me avoid your future anger.  As usual, then, I plan to appease you.

But in the silence of my mind, I've got a question for you.  In all the years we've known each other, how many times have I expressed anger at you?  By my count, the answer is... zero.  Question: Do you think that's because your behavior is above reproach?  Do you imagine I'm entirely satisfied with the way you've treated me?  Well, I'm not.  Your emotional abuse aside, you've failed to meet my expectations more than once.

So why haven't I ever raised my voice at you?  Indeed, why do I normally act as if everything you do is unobjectionable?  Seven main reasons.

1. Nobody's perfect.  I take a moderate amount of bad behavior for granted, and count myself lucky it's not worse.

2. Assessing behavior is surprisingly ambiguous.  Real life is not a math exam.  While bad behavior plainly exists, even decent people frequently see the world differently - an insight that inspired game theorists to develop the notion of trembling-hands equilibria.  In such an environment, interpreting people's actions charitably is advisable - especially people with a long, admirable track record.

3. While getting angry often changes behavior for the better, getting angry also often changes behavior for the worse.  Net effect?  Unclear. 

4. Getting angry is far from the only way to change behavior for the better.  So in the subset of situations where anger is an effective motivator, you still have to ask: Does it motivate better than these alternatives?  The answer, once again, is unclear.

5. Even when anger is the best short-run strategy, it damages long-run relationships.  And I value these long-run relationships more than I value winning any specific dispute.

6. Getting angry clouds your thinking, leading to intellectual and moral error.  And two of my chief life goals are being right and acting rightly.

7. All else aside, getting angry is aversive for me.  I don't "love to hate" anything or anyone.  I wish to live in harmony with others, especially people I know personally.

As I rattle off these points in my head, I nervously visualize you getting angrier.  So as usual, I'm not going to tell you what I'm really thinking.  Still, after making full allowance for (2), here's a harsh truth: When you kill the messenger, your ignorance is culpable.  Your obliviousness to my concerns is a vice.  Calm People like me deserve better.

Sincerely,

Calm Person




COMMENTS (15 to date)
Ray writes:

This is great and insightful! But let me suggest a small edit. You are referring to people who are characteristically angry rather than to every instance of someone being angry. Sometimes it's appropriate to feel anger, and plenty of calm people feel it and keep it in check or channel it in a useful way.

Hana writes:

The angry see through the passive aggressive.

LD Bottorff writes:

I guess I'm not angry enough to see through your passive/aggressiveness. To me, this looks like a thoughtful piece, the kind of writing that keeps me returning to Econlog.
Well said.

Thaomas writes:

You sure nailed it that asking for explanation, definition of terms of the abusive language, evidence for the conclusion just leads to greater anger. It is ultimately self limiting. The angry person will get so angry they will avoid communication.

Philo writes:

So you never express anger towards your wife? And is she similarly forbearing towards you? And is there no accumulation of repressed anger?

Fellow Traveler writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

MikeDC writes:

@Philo,
I actually pictured this letter as being written to his wife!

(I kid, I kid)

Khodge writes:

It must occasionally feel the same when writing a blog. The econlog moderating is great but I'm sure there are plenty of times that you cannot get a proper conversation, leave thoughts half discussed, or get caught in pointless tangents.

john hare writes:

Unfortunately, there are situations that call for expressed anger and the willingness to back it up. Acting the way this post suggests can lead to be labeled victim.

Peter Gerdes writes:

Many people don't see anger (at least anger not in the form of personal attacks) the same way you do. They see it as an acceptable, even necessary, way to communicate how strongly they feel.

As such, absent being told how you feel about it, they can quite easily assume it doesn't particularly bother you. They may see your constant calmness the way I see people who talk at a steady rate rather than speeding up when excited, i.e., just a personal quirk not something you want them to do as well.

Also, are you totally sure that what you are reacting to is anger? I've found that while I feel I rarely get angry in arguments/discussions I do get excited/emphatic in ways that I eventually found out other people understood as anger. I don't find it upsetting at all to have my opponent in an argument say, "That's absurd" or "That's a ridiculous suggestion." I don't mind it if they get louder because they feel excited and actually find it preferable if they are willing to interrupt when they see where I'm going or already disagree.

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Even if you are talking about what is obviously anger personally directed at you the acceptability of this varies widely between cultures and individuals.

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If you want to avoid greater anger tell them some *other* time when they are not currently anger via email...or huh...that is what this is isn't it?

Mike White writes:

Reading your, what essentially is, written equivalent of watching an HDTV channel of my thoughts/feelings, I will only add I don't feel that way to anyone who expresses anger, only to those I value. Usually, I keep angry people out of my bubble and therefore I never feel this way toward them. Love your blog!

Hazel Meade writes:

Anger is a tactic. Sometimes it's an appropriate one, but usually it's a cognitive trick people have learned to get other people to do what they want. There's always an implicit hint of violence - if you get angry , you might just lose control. Again, there are situations that call for that, but not often.

Of course, it's possible to be angry and still argue rationally and there are shades and layers of how much you show your anger in order to maximize the chances of persuading or cajoling the other person to go along. A really good debating will be quite skilled at calibrating the amount of anger expressed or pretended to in order to optimize the chances of getting someone else to agree. I think most humans do this without thinking. Often, expressed anger is all for show. Just as often, humans make themselves angry because it makes for a better, more persuasive display of angriness. It's like, if you can't convince someone, after a while, you start dialing up the angriness level to see if that works. But it's really all a subconscious cognitive trick.

Dick White writes:

Don't mean to nitpick and offer the following only because of you day job speaking to students:
We get angry "with" not "at".

pgbh writes:

People don't really get angry in order to change the behavior of those who've angered them. Rather, getting angry is more about showing third parties your ability to demand respect and/or inability to tolerate bad behavior.

Steve Z writes:

Here's a possibility. Dr. Caplan finds anger aversive, seeks to avoid it, and doesn't feel he can operate effectively when in its grip. That's a good thing. But there are people with the opposite inclination. Many of those people would love the opportunity to destroy the Dr. Caplans of the world, and the environment that permits their calm reflection. Happily, these people are opposed by angry people dedicated to preserving a safe space for Prof. Caplan.

If this is true (or people think it is true), it would explain why the latter group is prone to anger at Dr. Caplan - by leaving others to fight battles for him, he seems ungrateful to this group.

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