Why do people abuse strangers about things that don’t matter?



On a recent trip to the local supermarket, my husband ran into his friend Andy. “Forgot to bring a coin for the trolley,” Andy said, patting his pockets. My husband tapped the trolley he’d just selected. “Share mine.” So they perused the aisles together – their grocery needs were much the same (bread, milk, apples, chocolate) – then headed to the checkout.

This is where things started to go wrong. My husband and his friend were so absorbed in conversation they didn’t notice that the bloke queuing behind them only had a couple of items. They didn’t notice how annoyed he was, either – until he abused them. “Bloody poofs,” he muttered as he walked past outside. “Coulda let me go in front.”

“What’s that, mate?” my husband said. “What did you say?” The man stopped, turned around and leaned so close to his target that their noses almost touched. “F—in’ poofs,” he growled, spittle flying from his mouth.

Luckily, the aggression ended there. There was no punch-up in the carpark, no smashed eggs or broken ribs. Still, my husband arrived home slightly rattled.

Anger is an emotion that all humans experience. It’s perfectly normal to get a bit shirty at times. But why does anger sometimes turn into irrational hostility?

On our way from Ballarat to Melbourne last month we had to make a quick detour so that my husband (a fence builder) could measure a property boundary. We parked at the top of the steep block, on one side of a wide concrete driveway. The kids and I sat in the car while my husband did a lap with his measuring wheel.

A minute later a white sedan pulled up next to our car and the driver leaned out of the window. “Hello?” she said. I smiled awkwardly – I don’t usually attend fence quotations – and said, “My husband is just measuring the perimeter. For the fence.”

I was expecting an “Oh, of course,” and a smile in return. Instead, I received a cold stare and a “Could you not park in our driveway?”

This response threw me. “We’ll just be a couple of minutes,” I said. “If that’s okay?” “It isn’t, actually,” she replied tersely, then sped off.

Why did she speak to me like this? The driveway was two-cars wide. Our vehicle was not obstructing the thoroughfare. We were parked outside her property. Nothing about the situation, as far as I can see, impacted her life. So why was she so aggressive?

The cause of an angry outburst isn’t always connected to the victim. Wrath is often triggered by frustration or misunderstanding, embarrassment or anxiety. Losing control can instigate feelings of rage – things are not going the way I wanted them to! – and hostility is an attempt to regain power.

I get angry when people with oversized cars park illegally near schools so they don’t have to walk more than five metres to the gate. I get angry when I’m having a conversation with someone and they don’t ask me any questions. I get angry when I see ads for sports betting, or babies sucking on packaged fruit puree. But I don’t express this anger as aggression. I don’t abuse strangers.

A few years ago I got a job as a weekend receptionist. On my first day I was shown the computer system and the tearoom, and given a workplace agreement to sign. That evening I did some research and discovered that the hourly rate I’d been offered was below the award.

I got pretty irate about this. But I didn’t become violent. I didn’t yell at anyone. I just rang my supervisor and pointed out the “error”.  “Yes,” she said, “you’re right. The pay is too low.” A win! I thought. I’ve pulled her up and she will now offer to pay me the correct amount!

I was wrong. She didn’t get me to sign a new agreement. She told me I was no longer required.

Perhaps I should have expressed my anger outwardly. Maybe I should have driven past the business and thrown a brick through the window, or waited until the owner came out and shouted obscenities at him.

Instead, I rang Fair Work and made a complaint.

I can see that anger has a place. If nobody felt strongly about anything society would stagnate. Women would not be allowed to vote. Conscription and segregation would still exist.

I want people to protest when governments make stupid decisions. I want persecuted minorities to speak up. I want the world to change, and keep changing, and I feel that anger is part of this.

But I don’t want people to get all riled up about stuff that doesn’t matter. If I’m parked in your driveway for five minutes, just move on. If you’re stuck behind two men at the supermarket checkout, ask them politely if you can jump the queue.

And don’t call them “poofs”. Homophobia makes me really angry.

Jean Flynn’s first novel, Lovesick, is out now through XO Romance. 


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