Thoughtful Anger

“Anyone can become angry—that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not easy.” Aristotle, The Nichomachean Ethics

Everyone seems to be angry much more often and with much stronger intensity than they used to be. It’s even worse on social media, where discourse is devolving into nasty name calling, dispersions on people’s background or lifestyle, and a complete inability to be civil to those who have even a minor disagreement with you about something.

The anger has gotten so extreme in the political realm that people are ending  relationships with friends and even family when they discover they’re a strong supporter of a different political party.

As Aristotle suggests, anger is easy, and most people aren’t willing to step back and take the more difficult, the more productive path. They’re not willing to pause and think before screaming so they can formulate a  measured, more appropriate response to whatever set them off.  A response that can still demonstrate their anger but in a way that leads to an outcome that benefits both the one angered and the one who caused the anger.

The difficult path requires  you to engage your conscious mind and your intellect rather than  your animal emotions. You’ll rarely find yourself in a situation requiring you to close your fangs on someone’s head and tear it off.

Poorly exercised anger is divisive and can lead to hate, violence, and destruction.

Thoughtful anger leads to all kinds of useful outcomes: a constructive dialogue, edification,  a meeting of minds, problem solving.

There is perhaps no other arena where poorly exercised anger so easily plays out than travel.

I travel globally quite a bit so I’ve had more than my share of travel problems. I’m always amused  when I’m in line behind someone at the airport raving mad about the fact that the plane has a technical difficulty so won’t be flying. When I finally get to talk to the airline gate agent I like to tell them  “You’re so amazing.” They  look at me with a quizzical smile.

“That guy (yes,  it’s usually a guy) was crazy. I would have slugged him. You have such self- control.”

This leads to a big smile, a bit of commiseration, and often, a soft suggestion that perhaps I’d like a nice seat up front on an alternative flight.

When you find yourself getting angry at someone or about something, follow Aristotle’s path. Make sure you’re angry at the right person. I guarantee you the airline gate agent telling you your flight was cancelled had nothing to do with the cancellation.

Make sure you’re angry to the right degree. A cancelled flight is worth a certain level of annoyance, not rage.

Make sure you’re angry for the right purpose and at the right time. Perhaps this airline repeatedly cancels your flights. The best time to vent is when you are back home and can write a letter of complaint to the corporate office. In the short term, the right thing to do is to calmly speak to a travel attendant—not someone at the gate deflecting hoards of people—and  politely request a new flight, with a smile.

By the way, politeness and commiseration go a long way even when there’s no reason to be angry. Recently I stayed at a nice hotel in Washington DC. When checking in, I had a friendly chat with the desk clerk about how crazy it must be in DC with all the politicians and important people and how difficult this must make her job. I then mentioned that I like a high floor and it would be nice to have a room with a view. Would she please check and see if I had been assigned such a room?

She played with her computer, got my keycard, put it in the little folder with the room number on it, and while she handed it to me, she smiled, saying she was sure I would like the room she had found for me.

I took the elevator to  the top floor, walked to my room and opened the door to a nice corner suite with huge windows on both sides of the living room with a spectacular view of Washington and its most famous landmarks.

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Commenting area

  1. Very well said Mr S and if only we could all live by these words.

  2. Steve 07/30 at 1:51 pm · ·

    Fred, thank you for the nice words, especially the comment about all living by these words. There is way too much uncontrolled anger in the world. With the weapons available today starting with the internet and social media our future as civilized people is rapidly disappearing.

  3. It is pretty rare to read an article that use’s Aristotle’s The Nichomachean Ethics as its jumping off point, leave it to Steve Smolinsky.

    Sometimes it can be hard to remember, that each of us chooses how to respond to a given situation, even when we are temporarily subject to an amygdala hijack. Each of us can choose our intention and what we want to put out into the world.

    It helps when we remember our collective humanity and see others as people instead of objects. The more we practice it the easier it gets.


  4. Jory Barrad 08/01 at 8:18 pm · ·

    Hmmm, “thoughtful anger”, eh? I will have to give that one some thought. Thanks for the article, Steve.

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