Last June, I posted on article titled, Avoiding the Angry Email, directed at students who get frustrated with their instructors and respond with angry emails. You can read it here but, basically, it offered an explanation for how email tends to exacerbate problematic expressions of anger and offered tips on how to better handle such situations.
Like many of my posts, I decided to write it based partially on personal experiences. I had been teaching a couple of online classes that summer and had gotten a few angry emails from students who were upset about grades, policies, etc. The topic had been on my mind and, after talking with some colleagues with similar experiences, I decided to write the post. My hope was that it would be a helpful resource for instructors who wanted to share it with their students.
Interestingly, one of my students who I had had a very minor disagreement with over email read it and posted about it the online discussion forum for a class of mine that he was enrolled in. He wanted to know if he had been the motivation for the post and also wanted to express his regret over the original dispute.
Though he had not been the primary motivator for the original post, it did provide the opportunity to get feedback from the students in my class about how they would like instructors to respond when such situations arise.
Here is what they came up with:
- Call them on it. They said they do not think students intend on being rude most of the time and probably do not realize how they are coming across. Having an instructor let them know that their email came across as rude is good feedback for them and will help them develop better insight and learn to communicate more effectively in the future.
- Acknowledge that they care. One pointed out that a student has to care about the class and his or her grade in order to get angry over it. While the way they expressed it is not a good thing, the fact that they are angry probably is a good thing and it is nice for them to have that acknowledge. Something like and instructor writing, “I can see that this is important to you” or “I appreciate that you care about how you do in the class” can go a long way.
- Model politeness and professionalism in response. They felt that one of the best ways to let students know what is expected of them is to model it for them. Make sure your emails to them, whether it is in response to a rude email or not, reflects the courteousness and respectfulness you want them to show.
- Invite them to talk about it in person. They acknowledged that sometimes they are intimidated by their instructors and choose email as an easy way out. Having their instructor invite them to talk about the issue in person might open the door to healthier communication.
- Do not withhold assistance. One student who had experienced an email dispute with an instructor said that they appreciated that the instructor still addressed the original problem that prompted the angry email in the first place.
- Set the expectations ahead of time. They said that part of the problem is that students don’t always realize what their instructors want from them with regard to electronic communication and said they appreciate it when those norms are made clear at beginning of class.
A few weeks ago, a friend and colleague of mine wrote a really interesting blog piece on whether the focus on keeping children from swearing is misguided (you can read it here). The comments that followed her piece were the usual mix of insightful, complimentary, and argumentative. Some readers really seemed to connect with her perspective, some politely disagreed, and some were flat out rude and disrespectful. Of this last sort, at least one person suggested my friend had harmed her child by listening to rap music when she was pregnant and another seemed to question whether she was fit to be an educator.
The funny thing is that these comments were relatively tame compared to those comments you might find elsewhere on the internet. In fact, you can hardly avoid witnessing a rage filled debate when you visit the Parents Magazine page on Facebook. Posts about flash card applications for your smartphone prompt arguments over the role of technology in parenting and posts asking people how they spend their Sundays lead to arguments about the role of church. Even their “Messy Eater Photo Contest” prompted some comments about how it is wrong to let kids play with their food.
Meanwhile, just a few months ago, I found myself embroiled in my own little Facebook debate on the appropriateness of the “cry it out” approach to sleep training. While things stayed civil, there were certainly points in the discussion when I felt angry. All of these examples, coupled with many others, have made me start to wonder: Why do people get angry over the decisions that other parents make?
On the surface, it does not really make sense. Typically, we get angry when we are provoked. We get angry when we think we have been treated unfairly and when we feel we have been harmed. So why would anyone care if another parent lets his or her child play with food at the dinner table? How is it that they feel provoked or harmed by that decision? Likewise, why would someone feel unfairly treated or harmed by my friend’s decision to listen to rap music while pregnant?
Of course, there are times when it makes perfect sense to be angry over another’s parenting. Instances of abuse, neglect, etc. are an outrage and everyone should be angry about them. But, I don’t think that spending Sunday morning at the park or zoo instead of church falls into that category.
Not surprisingly, there is no research on this. It is a rather specific topic that no one seems to be exploring. Consequently, my thoughts on this are not driven as much by research as they are by theory and observations. With that in mind, here are some possible explanations as to where the anger might be coming from.
Insecurity. Parenting decisions are both difficult and deeply personal. Whether it is how long to use a car or booster seat, what to do about tantrums, or the best way to potty train, parents have to make tough decisions. When you add that there are countless and conflicting sources of information, it is easy to feel insecure about the decisions you make. When someone makes a different decision than you, it might make you feel like you are doing something wrong. If you are from the “cry it out” school of sleep training, someone saying they never let their child cry might feel like a provocation. If you never let your child play with his or her food, a Parents Magazine tribute to messy eaters might make you feel like they are saying you are too strict. Consequently, you feel angry, a common response to feeling as though your decisions and abilities are being questions or insulted.
Confidence Building. Related to this issue of insecurity, a second possibility is that the anger one feels in these instances helps build his or her confidence. In other words, if you do not always feel like the perfect parent (and most do not), maybe judging someone else makes you feel better about yourself and your abilities. When you are at dinner and see parents letting their kids eat something you would not let your kids eat, becoming angry at them might actually boost your confidence and make you feel better about something you are actually feeling insecure about. In a sense, what you might be thinking is, “I don’t have all the answers but at least I don’t do that.”
Indirect Provocation. Finally, some people may see decisions other parents make as a symptom of something bigger. For example, the regular church goer might see someone who does not take his or her kids to church as a symptom of societal decay. Someone who does not make their kids say “please” and “thank you” might be considered a symptom of a bigger problem, the lack of manners and civility in society today. These decisions then do feel like they are provocations, at least indirectly, to the person who witnesses them.
Something interesting happened as I was writing this post. I had to take a break to go pick my kids up from daycare and when I was there the teacher asked me if my four-month old was sleeping through the night. I said no, that he needs to be fed once in the middle of the night. I also mentioned, as sort of a side comment, that we put him to bed pretty early compared to most kids. She was somewhat shocked by the time we put him to bed and asked if we had considered a later bed time for him.
I admit, it made me a little angry and defensive to have her question me like that. It probably should not have. It is reasonable for a daycare worker to ask about certain habits and I imagine, from her perspective, she is wondering if a later bedtime would mean that he would take better naps when he is at daycare. I certainly would not get angry if someone challenged me in a similar way over a decision I made at work (i.e., I do not get angry when I am challenged about my attendance policy or my position on extra credit). But, like most people, I am sometimes insecure about the decisions I make as a parent and, even though I believe that an earlier bedtime is best for him, it is still easy to feel defensive when challenged.
It was a timely example given that I was writing this post when it happened. The good news, though, is that a little bit of introspection helped me work through it and better understand why I felt as I did.
By Ryan C. Martin
You don’t have to look too hard to find anger on the internet. Whether through weblogs, social networking websites, or online discussion forums, people use the Internet to express their anger on a variety of topics. Online news sources routinely allow for public comments, often providing a venue for reader anger. Likewise, there are entire websites, called rant-sites, dedicated to allowing people to vent online and a series of studies I and three other authors presented at the 2011 Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association Annual Convention explored the use of these websites, including what people get out of expressing their anger in such a way.
Rant-sites are exactly what they sound like. They are websites designed for people to rant or vent about any topic they choose. For an example of one of the most popular rant-sites, go to www.justrage.com. Be warned, however, that such websites are not for the faint of heart. Much of what you read there is offensive and some of it seems to qualify as hate-speech. Though Just Rage has a policy against racism and hate speech, that policy doesn’t appear to be well enforced.
The project we presented included two studies exploring different facets of rant-site use. We decided to start this line of research because so little is known about how anger is expressed online and what writers seem to get out of it. We choose rant-sites because we thought that what happens on these websites is part of a bigger problem that is happening on social networking websites, discussion forums, etc. Our hope was to better understand why people express their anger online the way they do and what they perceive as the value of such expressions.
The first thing we did was to look simply at the content of the rants on several of these websites. We found that, more often than not, rants are directed at a specific person, usually a spouse or romantic partner. When not a particular person, rants were almost always directed at a large subgroup like a religious group or a political party. By far, the most common reason for the rant was some sort of pet peeve or daily irritation (e.g., people who complain, spouse being late all the time, having to install toolbars on their web browser when they download computer software).
The second study surveyed users of such websites to learn more about how/why they use the website along with how they experience and express anger in general. What we found was that every participant responded by indicating that they usually feel calm, relieved, or relaxed after writing their rants. This finding alone is a bit surprising as catharsis, the act of venting or “letting it out”, is well known to have unhealthy long-term consequences. The reports of decreased anger, then, could likely indicate that they are feeling angrier as they write the rant and that anger decreases when they are done. They interpret that decrease as feeling relaxed and don’t recognize the increase in anger they experienced while writing.
Another interesting finding here is the sense of community that seems to develop on some of these websites. Most participants were hoping for some sort of interaction through comments on their rants. They reported wanting people to validate their feelings, make them laugh, or even to disagree with them. In some ways, you could think of these websites as anonymous social networking sites where people know each other by their usernames (though, they don’t all have user names).
One of the more striking findings is that visitors of rant-sites are a fairly angry bunch in general with approximately 60% of them scoring above the 75 percentile on a measure of anger. Likewise, approximately 10% of them reported having had a physical fight in the last month and almost all of them reporting a having a verbal fight in the last month.
Unfortunately, there is still a lot that we don’t know about online anger. Frankly, the big problem with this line of research is that it's very hard to find participants. We tried to attract them with the possibility of winning a drawing for a gift card. Though we had enough participants to do some basic analyses, it was very hard to attract people who were interested in participating. They are posting anonymously for a reason and are not interested in providing too much information. We had a similar problem when conducting another study on news discussion forums. Participants just don't want to provide much information about themselves and, until we solve that problem, we aren't going to know much about this type of anger expression.
By Ryan C. Martin
Special thanks to my three co-authors for this presentation: Kelsey Ryan Coyier, Leah M. Van Sistine, and Kelly L. Schroeder
In talking with some colleagues, it’s becoming more and more common to get angry and sometimes even aggressive emails from students. It seems the typical pattern is that a student gets a bad grade on something or doesn’t agree with a decision the instructor has made and quickly fires off an angry email to try and resolve the situation (or sometimes just to complain about it).
I can certainly attest to having received such emails and it’s never pleasant. Typically, they are full of bolded words, the excessive use of capital letters, and lack any sort of salutation. When I get them, it bothers me for several reasons. It’s rude, disrespectful, and makes me feel as though my hard work isn’t appreciated. What’s worse, though, is that sometimes the student is right in his or her criticism or concern but wrong in how he or she expressed it. In other words, the student is making a very valid point but it’s hard to find because it’s hidden behind all those exclamation points.
If you are a student, this is exactly why you should think twice about sending such an email. Your position might be absolutely correct but you are making it really easy for your instructor to ignore it by being rude. Once you send a hostile email, the exchange stops being about your concern and starts being about your nasty email.
If you have done this, you are certainly not alone. It’s a common mistake and there are all sorts of reasons why electronic communication lends itself to this sort of thing.
Exacerbating Impulsivity. The electronic format worsens impulse control problems because it’s too quick and easy. When I was a student (in the olden days before email), if I wanted to voice a concern to one of my teachers, not only did I have to have a face to face talk, I had to wait to the next class or his or her office hours to have that talk (I suppose I could have used the phone but I don’t think many people did that). That gave me plenty of time to cool off and think about the best way to handle the situation.
With email (and texting, Facebook posts, etc.), you can send your response immediately. This means that you are responding when you are most angry, which influences what you write. You are less rational and less likely to think through the consequences. While that angry email likely does capture what you are really feeling, it’s probably not expressing that frustration in the most effective way. Consequently, you may fail to get your point across or, worse yet, you may damage your relationship and reputation with the instructor.
Perceived Anonymity. A second issue is that email feels semi-anonymous to people. It’s not anonymous, of course, but the distance between you and the recipient may stop you from censoring yourself. As you are typing the email, you aren’t looking the person in the eye, you aren’t seeing his or her facial expression, or listening to his or her side of the story. If it were a face-to-face conversation, you might notice that he or she is really processing what you are saying and you may come to understand his or her perspective before things get too heated. Even if that doesn’t happen, it’s just harder for most people to say hurtful things to a person’s face. When you can see that what you are saying is hurting or offending them, you are more likely to back off.
Now, by no means am I suggesting that you not voice your concerns or frustration to your instructors. They make mistakes sometimes and, when they do, their students have the right to try and address those mistakes. In fact, I want you to voice that frustration... just more effectively.
So, students, the next time you want to voice a concern to one of your instructors, I would encourage you to do the following before you hit send.
- Don’t hit send at all. Go talk to the person if you can. Email is sometimes the easy way out. It’s what people rely on when they don’t want to have a real but uncomfortable conversation with someone. Clearly, there are times when email may be the way to go (e.g., an online class) but, if it’s possible to avoid it, it might make sense to do so.
- Wait. Emotions are usually short lived. If you can wait it out, your anger will start to dissipate and the email you send will probably be better for it. If you feel you need to do something, go ahead and start writing but don’t send until you’ve had a chance cool off, reread, think it through, and probably rewrite some parts.
- Have it read. You may want to ask a friend you trust to read it before you send it. If that person is removed from the situation, he or she might be able to offer some much needed perspective, tell you if it sounds rude, or if it’s unclear.
- Be professional. Sometimes, what comes across as rudeness or excessive anger is actually a lack of professionalism (or, worse yet, a combination of both). Treat these emails the way you would treat a letter. Start with some sort of greeting (e.g., Dear Professor…), use correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling, and end with some sort of farewell (e.g., Sincerely or Thanks for your consideration, etc). This may seem a bit old school to some but, ultimately, it’s just a polite way to communicate with people and will go a long way in taking the edge off.
- Be emoticon free. Related to a lack of professionalism, avoid anything that’s designed to show, explicitly, how angry you are. Stay away from frowning faces, all capital letters, extra exclamation points, using bold or colored font, etc. Assuming you are trying to change your instructor’s mind about something or alert him or her to a problem (see number six below), these sorts of superfluous elements only get in the way of your point.
- Ask yourself why you are sending it. Make sure you are aware of the end result you are hoping for. Do you want the instructor to change a grade, rethink a policy, or just to offer an explanation? Regardless, make sure it’s clear to the instructor what you want. Otherwise, it will just feel to him or her like useless venting. If the point is just to vent, it’s probably better not to send it at all and find some other way to deal with your anger.
Dr. Ryan Martin is an associated professor in the Departments of Human Development and Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He has a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Southern Mississippi and has been studying anger for about 11 years. You can learn more about Dr. Martin by visiting his website at: www.uwgb.edu/martinr
1. What motivated you to start studying anger in the first place?
When I was an undergraduate student at the University of St. Thomas, I worked at an adolescent shelter, run by the Salvation Army, called Booth Brown House. The shelter was a place for kids who didn’t have anywhere else they could stay and were awaiting placement in a group home, a foster home, or even back with their parents. Most of them were considered “at-risk” for one reason or another and I noticed during my work there that difficulty controlling their anger was a fairly salient problem for the vast majority of them. For that reason, along with my own experiences with anger when I was growing up, I decided I wanted to study anger in graduate school. I was fortunate that the same year I started at the University of Southern Mississippi, Dr. Eric Dahlen was starting as a new faculty member with a research program in anger. He and I started working together on various projects during that first year and have continued to collaborate.
2. What would you say is the most important research you have done on anger?
My doctoral dissertation was the creation of an assessment tool, the Angry Cognitions Scale, that was designed to measure the types of angry thoughts that are associated with anger. Since then, I have done several follow-up studies to validate the scale's usefulness as a predictor of angry responses and anger consequences. However, my new line of research looks at how anger is expressed online. I am currently working on studies designed to explore how people express their anger in anonymous venues, such as online discussion forums, as compared to non-anonymous venues like Facebook or email. Similarly, I recently collected data on how people use rant-sites, websites where people can rant about any topic they choose (see www.justrage.com for an example). This is an exciting area because we know so little about it.
3. What do you think are the most important questions that anger researchers have yet to answer?
Anger is an understudied emotion compared to others and most of the research that’s been done seems to focus on the negative side of anger (e.g., the consequences of maladaptive anger). Little research has been done on the positive value of anger when it’s being expressed in a healthy way. There are many people who make their anger work for them and don’t see the sorts of consequences that others experience. I think it would be helpful to learn more about such individuals.
4. What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions about anger?
To me, there are two primary misconceptions. First, that anger is always harmful or problematic. People fail to recognize that anger is normal and healthy but that, like any emotion, it can become problematic if experienced too often or in extremes. Second, many people still believe that venting their anger through catharsis is the best way to get rid of it. The catharsis myth has been debunked many times but still seems to hang on. It’s too bad because one of the things we know about catharsis is that, not only does it not help people get rid of their anger, it usually makes the problem worse.
5. If there was one thing you would like people to understand about anger, what would it be?
I would like to help people understand the upside of their anger and to learn to use it as a tool. I think if people can recognize the feeling states associated with anger and learn to express it in a healthy way, through appropriate assertiveness, problems solving, etc, they’ll be better off.