Things There Should Be Words For: Types of Anger

I’m starting a post series. I find myself dissatisfied with the English language on a pretty regular basis, and I’ve decided to complain about that loudly and serially. There are a lot of concepts that are important or ubiquitous enough that they really could use finely-tuned language, but where the English language doesn’t deliver. This is the series I’ve designated for talking about those concepts, about why they’re important, why the current language surrounding them is insufficient, and about what might work to fill in the language gaps (assuming I have any halfway decent ideas). I think language has a tremendous influence on how we see and share the world around us and that improving it is vitally important for dealing with problems, both large and small.

Without further ado, here’s today’s thing there should be words for:

To introduce this first one, I’m going to quote Miriam at Brute Reason talking about one difficult aspect of dealing with depression:

“…the burden of trying to explain my mental quirks to everybody I interact with regularly is one that I can’t even fathom, let alone take on.

For starters, people get defensive. I’ll say something like, “This is not your fault and it’s probably just because of my depression, but when you sign off in the middle of a serious conversation, I feel hurt,” and they hear “YOU ARE HURTING ME YOU TERRIBLE FUCKING PERSON.” Or they hear, “I expect you to change your IM habits to conform to my needs.” And they respond accordingly.”

One of the most important distinctions to be able to make in conversations about feelings is the distinction between talking about feelings to express them, talking about them to examine, request, or demand a particular course of action, and talking about them to place blame (and all the grey in between). There are many different conversations that could follow a statement as simple as “this bothers me”:

“This bothers me and I want to talk about it to figure out why.”

“This bothers me and I want to talk about it to figure out what can be done about it.”

“This bothers me and I therefore want you to stop doing it.”

“This bothers me, you terrible, horrible person, you!”

etc, etc…

If you’re on the receiving end of a “this bothers me” type statement, it can be very difficult to determine which of the above conversations is happening. “It bothers me when you X” can as easily be the segue into the “This bothers me, you terrible, horrible person!” conversation as the “This seems to be bothering me and I want to talk it out to figure out why” conversation. Discussions like this are complicated further by the fact that they’re generally emotional (or else the conversation probably wouldn’t be necessary in the first place), and as a result, the “This bothers me; you suck!” accusatory language can leak into the conversation as a result of one or both parties being emotionally raw and slipping up.

These are important distinctions that need to be made quite often. Unfortunately, it’s not terribly easy to make them succinctly.  I think that having simple, concise vocabulary for this would make this kind of communication way easier. Simple qualifiers that distinguish “Let’s examine this” anger, from, “Something needs to be done about this” anger, from, “You are a smelly jerk and I hate you” anger. I’m not sure how to go about coming up with them, though.

Off the top of my head, the best I’ve got is traffic light colors. E.g. “green” anger meaning “likely irrational anger that needs to be talked about”, “yellow” anger meaning “anger that may or may not be rational, or may require certain actions to be taken”, and “red” anger being “I’m angry at you, and I think this anger is justified and at least partially your responsibility, and here’s why”.

Thoughts? Better ideas? If anyone has particularly good words or phrases that they use to express any of the things I discuss in these posts, I’d love you to post them in the comments. I would like this to be a place to share or invent useful language, in addition to being a place to complain about how inadequate current language is.

4 comments on “Things There Should Be Words For: Types of Anger

  1. Whoa, I really love the colors idea. I’m extremely fortunate to have a partner (and many friends) who are down enough with metacommunication that we could actually make that a thing. :)

      • WHOA. That just blew my mind. I’m definitely stealing this.

        And yeah, that totally is a bitch to explain. And also, some people would consider that problematic, but I personally don’t. I’d rather focus on actual humans being called bitches rather than inanimate concepts. :P

  2. I like the green/yellow/red idea. I’ve found personally that it’s important for me to make a distinction between “I’m feeling x right now and would like to get some emotional support” and “You did something bad, causing me to feel x, and I demand an apology.” This is particularly salient with the words “offensive” vs. “offended.” A relatively small number of things are objectively offensive … and I can happen to take offense at any number of statements or insinuations that could easily not seem offensive to the speaker. So “That was offensive!” puts someone on the defensive (ha), whereas, “I’m feeling offended — did you mean to say [whatever]?” goes over somewhat better.

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