Is it socially acceptable for women to express anger? I have thought about this forever– long before Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was called to task for dropping the f-bomb in frustration the other day. My first reaction to Senator Gillibrand’s outburst was, “Way to go! You tell ‘em, sister!”
Anger is a mysterious emotion to me. As a girl and then as a woman, it was/is difficult to express. There is a caveat to that. I have had no problem expressing anger with my mother or my husband. Aren’t they lucky?! While they might prefer it be otherwise, I choose to think of it as a mark of how comfortable I am with them. They are the recipients of the full range of my emotions. That is the positive spin I’m putting on it and I’m sticking with it. (Perhaps I’m letting myself off too easily.)
My children might say that I freely express anger with them, too. (Leah and Dan, you can take this opportunity to offer your first public comments on this blog, if you wish.) That may have been true when they were children, but it is much more complicated now that they are adults. The truth is, I don’t often get angry at them. More frequently I can be hurt or frustrated, emotions which are also difficult to express.
Which brings me to the question: what is anger? Isn’t it the result of fear, frustration or hurt? Is anger actually a separate thing? Turns out these aren’t original questions, as the image below reveals.
I reflect on my Dad’s temper (which I wrote about previously here) when we were growing up. I think 95% of the time his anger was a manifestation of frustration. Driving the car in New York City traffic, where other drivers did dumb things, where rubbernecking could cause endless delays, where the Van Wyck Expressway was under construction for my entire life, the aggravation sent him over the edge. Add Mark teasing me, telling me I was adopted or calling my shoes canoes, and me responding by hitting him or whining to my parents; it was a toxic mix. “Don’t make me pull over!” he screamed. Dad’s voice was deep and intense – in a small space like the car, the sound reverberated. We got in line quickly. Until the next provocation.
It also seems that some people are born angry. I don’t know if that was the case with my dad, but it seemed to be the case with my son. Perhaps it was low frustration tolerance, or over-sensitivity, but Dan was angry a lot. If something didn’t taste the way he expected, or if a fabric was rough on his skin, he objected strenuously. Gary and I tried various strategies to help him manage it and find outlets for it. I wouldn’t presume to speak for Dan, but by the time he was in high school he seemed to have a much better handle on it.
For me, anger was often expressed in tears and sometimes when I least wanted them. I couldn’t cry in grief, but I could cry in anger.
I was working for the City of Pittsburgh’s Finance Department in 1984. Computer systems were being implemented and there was resistance from staff. One of my jobs was to train the city’s auditors on the new system. The audit department was comprised of about 15 men (zero women), who had been doing their jobs, on average, for more than 10 years. I was 24, right out of graduate school, from New York City and Jewish. And, at that time many of the Finance Department employees, even in the audit department, only had a high school diploma. I was an outsider for many reasons and my message of change was very unwelcome.
I walked the group through the new system. I don’t remember exactly how it started to devolve, but it became a gripe session. They vented all of their anger and frustration on me. The department supervisor, a man at least 30 years my senior, stood by silently. I almost wondered if he was taking pleasure in the display, after all it was directed at me, not him. I tried to stand my ground, explaining how this was a tool to help them, explaining how I was not the decision-maker here but the messenger, how I would share their concerns with the higher ups. After a while, although I was angry, I got shakier and shakier, my voice cracking. Eventually some tears rolled down my cheeks. I wished I could have channeled my father’s rage. Finally, mercifully, the session was over.
I went to my office to collect myself. Then I went to see my boss, the treasurer. I told him he might hear some things about the training session and I wanted him to hear it from me first. While at that point I was composed, I was still shaky. The one thing that came from that meeting was that he spoke with the audit supervisor about his failure to step up and help, given that he was a member of the management team.
A few days later, I ran into one of the auditors on the staircase. He apologized for his behavior, explaining that I was the unfortunate recipient of their built-up frustration. I accepted his apology, but something about it made me uneasy. I felt like he was patronizing me. He was one of the most aggressive offenders at the training session – his last name was Heckler. Unbelievable! How appropriate.
It wasn’t the first time and it wasn’t the last time that a workplace experience played out that way. If I felt that my integrity was in question or if criticism was unfair, it resulted in tears, rather than anger. I hated that about myself. Fortunately, the circumstances didn’t arise very often. I was in my late 40’s when I finally could stand my ground without tears.
Actually, standing my ground in the workplace, even without the tears, didn’t work out that well either. I never did figure out how to successfully express disagreement or frustration (if success is measured by changing minds of those in power).
As I got older and less concerned with what other people thought, I was freer in stating my opinion. This didn’t always go over very well. When I worked for the school boards association, if the organization was taking a position that I thought was not in the best interest of students or my fellow employees, I could be quite passionate in expressing my views. I wasn’t very effective in changing minds, which could reflect the weakness of my argument, or it could have related to how I delivered the message. I came to believe that it was at least partly because strong opinions expressed by a strong woman were not welcome.
Research, at least in one study reported on in Psychology Today,* suggests that when women show anger, they lose credibility, while men gain credibility when they do. That finding is certainly consistent with my experience.
For both men and women anger is a tricky emotion to manage. But for women it seems to be a no-win situation. If you come across too strongly, it turns people off. If you are too meek, you get walked over or patronized. I don’t know how this will ever change, but I am hopeful that awareness is the first step.
*Salerno, J. M., & Peter-Hagene, L. C. (2015). One Angry Woman: Anger Expression Increases Influence for Men, but Decreases Influence for Women, During Group Deliberation. Law and Human Behavior, doi:10.1037/lhb0000147)