Angry encounters

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Photo by Frank Cone on

Last weekend I sat outside a cafe eating avocado on toast (sorry not sorry).

It was cold but sunny, and I was basking in the glow of surviving an exercise workout with only minimal back pain.

I was relaxed…

…until a scene of urban aggression played out on the narrow pavement next to me.

A man was pushing a pram with a baby, whilst a little girl dawdled along behind him. A woman was walking the other way, carrying a large handbag. After they passed, the man turned to shout something like “Get your bag out of the way!”

The woman stopped. I got a bad feeling.

She walked back towards him. I was willing her to walk on. But she addressed him directly “What did you say to me? What did I do?”

The man’s complaint was the woman’s bag had come close to knocking into the little girl’s head. It wasn’t clear what actually happened.

Things escalated. The woman called into question why he wasn’t holding the child’s hand, “she could have wandered into the road!”

This incensed the man. “You ******* fat ****! **** off!”

I could feel his anger from where I was sitting. I grew tense, scared he was going to get violent. The women walked away, shouting back that he was a disgrace for saying all this in front of children.

Luckily it ended there.

This was the second angry encounter I’d seen in the space of 10 minutes.

It happens on the underground too much. I’ve witnessed a few incidents, which were made all the worse by being trapped in a tube carriage.

A particularly nasty one involved a man who was muscular, drunk and angry. This is the holy trinity of characteristics that makes people scared to intervene, no matter what happens. I don’t know exactly what the other person’s offence was, but it seemed to be something like not moving bags. Perhaps there was a frown or a comment.

The man unleashed a torrent of abuse at this individual: “You ******* ****, do you like donuts? You must do. Look at the state of you!” And various other horrible things. It went on for minutes but felt like hours.

(Side note – who doesn’t like donuts? Rage is confusing.)

Like the rest of the people on that train, I looked down at my feet.

No one intervened. We didn’t know how, without becoming the target of the man’s aggression. He was unpredictable and could be dangerous. We let him continue with his tirade, feeling it ricochet around the carriage.

I can’t imagine how upset the person he was addressing must have been. They were going about their day and his anger struck them at random, like lightning.

Are people getting angrier?

What happens in the lives of the people in these encounters? Will these moments haunt them? What is the invisible damage? What is behind the anger? 

In these cases, anger about behaviour turned so quickly into insults about appearance. It sticks in the psyche, even hearing the words applied to other people. It reminds us that we are all open to judgement.

Anger and judgement sit uncomfortably close. We seem to feel it is ok to judge someone based on their appearance, their clothes, their parenting skills, or what they eat. We would normally keep this private but they have wronged us somehow so now it’s ok to tell them. Or to shout it in their face.

It creates these odd and fictional divisions. The family and child-free, the good and the bad citizen. But aren’t we all a mix of things? Haven’t we all been the person who let someone go and the person who barged ahead? Are any of us above judgement?

We live in a climate of intense frustration that doesn’t have anywhere to go.

On the underground I often imagine humans as animals being transported too close together. Stressed, tired and anxious, we are too hot under fluorescent lights and trying to block out the screech of the tracks. Sometimes we step on each other’s toes. That’s when it all kicks off.

And I notice how it makes me feel.

I am terrified by anger, particularly when it comes from men. Does it tap into an evolutionary instinct of fight-or-flight? Or does it remind me of situations in my own life?

It’s not all men, obviously. Women also get angry.

I can’t claim to be an expert at expressing my anger well. True to form, if I’m really upset I’ll write you an email or send you a text. At least I’ve reflected on it for while but it’s also a clear conflict-avoidance strategy. And I’ll probably regret sending it.

Is there a useful way to be angry?

Perhaps we all need to visit a Rage Club.

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