It’s Not My Fault You’re Angry
Anger is like a dandelion. That is, it spreads.
Having to absorb an adult’s tantrum, especially at work (when you can’t always tell someone to leave) is a type of emotional labor.
An example is a flight attendant having to smile while being berated by customers. It’s exhausting to take a lot of abuse and not be able to show a reaction. A tantrum doesn’t even make people feel better. People either have to solve the source of their anger, or let it go.
I’m normally not one to get bothered by an outburst. A customer swears at me? Ha, I’ve been called worse. They’re in a bad mood? Happens to the best of us.
Most of my interactions are positive — I’d say 99 out of 100. And if someone is really fuming, most of the time, I can defuse their anger. Giving an explanation, showing that you’re listening, and letting them vent usually does the trick, and they calm down.
But awhile back, one customer really had it out for my team, and had tantrums and complaints beyond what we had ever seen. He didn’t want a resolution to his imagined problem; he wanted a punching bag. He made all sorts of accusations. It escalated to management. I proved he was lying, with witnesses and documents.
Management then asked us, “What did you do to upset him?”
The just-world hypothesis states that if something bad happens to you, you must have deserved it. Conversely, that if you’re bad, you will one day get your comeuppance.
This leads to victim-blaming: “You were robbed? Well, what were you doing out late at night?”
“What did you do to upset him?”
In reality, the world isn’t fair. I find that people tend to transfer their anger from its source to an easy target. You see this when a boss yells at a worker, and the worker takes it without a word of complaint, then goes home fuming and yells at his or her spouse and children.
It’s interesting that people can usually control their anger when faced with an authority figure. How many people will yell at a boss, a doctor, or a police officer? Very few, because the consequences are swift. But they will certainly yell at a customer service worker, a secretary, or a teacher — people who are usually powerless to stop the verbal abuse.
This differs from an argument, in which two parties (often with similar levels of power) are locked in disagreement. Arguments happen, and the two people generally know why they’re at odds. If I caused someone’s problem, I can certainly fix it and apologize.
When I am on the receiving end of someone who walks in and flies off the handle, and then I get blamed for it, it’s not so easy.
What I almost find worse is when someone says or does something really horrible, on purpose, then tries to backtrack. They stomp their feet so hard that things fall off shelves. They raise their fists. Then when they start to see a consequence — someone getting angry back, or they get shown the door — they say a quick, “I’m sorry.”
As if that means you will forget everything. As if what they did never happened. They’re not really sorry; they’re sorry they might lose out on something. Threats and tantrums have lasting effects, and two words don’t erase that.
I read this example somewhere: Knock a vase on the ground, smashing it. Now say, “I’m sorry.” Did that fix the vase? Of course not. The damage has been done.
Words and tantrums have lasting effects.
I know I shouldn’t let other people’s rage get me down, but at the time, I did. It’s not easy to deal with people who are lashing out, and not take it personally. You think: Are they going to sue? Am I going to have to deal with this for months or years?
After my interaction with the horrible client, I found myself having nightmares, and falling behind on a class I was working on.
When I tried to talk to other people about how I felt, I received platitudes: “Don’t worry about it.” “Oh, I had the same thing happen to me once.” Nothing that made me feel better in the moment.
It was like the anger had infected me, and I was now angry, too.
Someone else confessed to me that she was so upset by that client, she woke up in the middle of the night, furious at his behavior. “And I never do that,” she said. I know it: she is the most easygoing person I know. I told her she had done everything right, and that this person was wrong.
In the end, I let it go. When he stopped getting a reaction, he went away.
Most complaints and shows of anger are minor. Dealing with them is part of life, and part of customer service. But when things cross a line, we need to support each other.
Why are some workplaces letting people verbally abuse staff without consequences? The ideal way to deal with a truly abusive customer is to refuse to engage.
On the phone: “I see that you’re upset and we’re not getting anywhere. I need to end the conversation now, and you can call me back when you are thinking more clearly.” Click.
They’re doing it in person? Point them toward the door.
The message needs to be: You are unreasonable, and that’s your problem, not mine. Only when people feel a consequence of their tantrums do they usually stop.
Reacting to anger by feeling crummy is normal, at first. But I can control how I act from there.
All I can do is put things back on the shelves, literally and figuratively, and move on. Take a deep breath. Take a walk, journal, write music. You will feel better, and you’ll probably forget this even happened.
It’s great advice, and something tantrum-throwers should take to heart.