There are 10 or so moments in my career that make me wince when I think of them, and all but one involve a flash of anger. (The other one: an autocorrect in an email to my boss that turned an innocuous thought into “I lift you.”) There isn’t one moment at work in which I let my temper flare up that I don’t wish I could take back. Uncontrolled anger is always a mistake. It’s always regrettable. And it always reveals you to be weak even as you attempt to seem strong.
But you know this.
The problem is that when anger floods your head, the sticky note on your brain that says don’t let your temper show can go up in flames. So, here, with a lot of help from Deanna Geddes of Temple University, whose research focuses on anger and emotion in the workplace, I offer a list of five things to think about in the five to 10 seconds in which your sense of “felt anger” (as the psychologists put it) threatens to become expressed anger.
1. Your kindest aunt.
Her name is Grace. And if it isn’t, it should be. What would she think about what you’re about to say?
2. Every Twitter freak-out ever.
Of the three positive contributions that social media has imparted to the world, the most important is its laying bare of the futility of anger and how stupid we look when we are angry. (I do not know what the other two contributions are.) Consider the West/Khalifa Imbroglio of 2016: Early this year, hip-hop singer Wiz Khalifa tweeted, “Hit this kk and become yourself.” West translated “kk” to be a reference to his wife, Kim Kardashian, and blasted off dozens of tweets dissing Khalifa, his music, his family and his ex-wife. Khalifa then explained that “kk” was referring to his personal strand of weed. The world reeled from the loss of approximately four million IQ points. Think this is dumb? When you are angry, on or off social media, you look just as dumb.
3. Yourself, visible to others.
“There is a difference between aggression in the workplace and anger,” Geddes says. “Aggression is used by someone who is trying to inflict harm. Anger is your reaction when you feel you’ve been wronged.”
The test is: What do you look like to someone walking down the hall who can see your interaction but can’t hear it? If you are acting aggressively, menacingly or otherwise “attitudinal,” then that will be apparent to an observer. But if you’re expressing yourself calmly, your “I am feeling anger right now and I want to talk about it” will look to an outside observer like “I have some thoughts right now and I want to talk about it.”
4. Your emotional state.
That line “I am feeling anger right now” didn’t come from me. It’s what Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, authors of the book The Upside of Your Dark Side, call a “discomfort caveat” -- that is, an announcement that you’re about to express your anger. And that’s a good plan B. (Plan A, says Geddes: Take a deep breath or go for a walk before responding in anger. But that’s not always possible in one-on-one situations that require a response.) When you admit that you’re angry -- when you say, “Hey, what’s going on right now angers me” -- you’re rationally expressing your feelings and searching for a solution. That’s good for you, and for the person you’re talking to.
5. The hole you’re about to dig.
Research consistently shows that our expressed emotions reinforce themselves. When we smile, we feel happier, for instance. And when we act angry, we feel angrier. In 2010, for example, researchers at the University of Illinois and UC Berkeley asked participants to make judgments in fictional tort cases about injury and negligence. Some participants watched a “random neutral video” beforehand, and some were shown a video of a person being bullied. Those who watched the second video got angry and were more punitive.
This is why there’s often so much to apologize for once an episode of anger is over with. We dig a hole of rage, jump in it, then get ourselves really dirty trying to claw our way back out. Anger is dirty. Don’t get dirty. Believe me, a few seconds of composure can save you a few years of wincing. Decades, even.
I lift you.
Son of a --!