Illustrations by Ana Popescu
You’ve been that customer. You’ve sat on hold, forced to listen to the same endless loop of elevator music, only to have your call routed to the wrong department after a 16-minute wait. It may not have been Althea in Fraud’s fault that Ramesh in Technical Support actually meant to send your call to Rita in Account Management, but damn.
The angry hardly ever see themselves as angry. We treat anger as a temporal emotion, a lapse in our rational judgement, a strange impulse that took us by surprise. “I don’t know what got into me,” we laugh.
But what happens if you work in a profession where absorbing and internalizing someone else’s anger is an occupational hazard? A bad interaction with a customer service employee may be nothing more to a customer than an angry note that’s forgotten seconds later — but is it nearly as transitory to be constantly on the receiving end of someone else’s primal frustration?
The following accounts show how anger’s ramifications lingered far longer than people realized at the time — a fact that’s particularly poignant when you realize that many people’s career success is predicated on not letting this sort of anger ruffle them.
As Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, wrath isn’t just a temporary state, but a disease. The way to get around it, then, is best summed up by his simple aphorism: “Quiet cures the beginning of disease.” Stoicism in the face of unbridled anger is the best way to blunt the rebuke, but can biting your tongue so often sting in a different way, no matter how much quiet you practice?
Meet the people whose jobs mean they bear the brunt of our frustrations and our furies.
Karen, Restaurant Manager
Once I offered to take a menu from a gentleman who was about to be seated, since we had set up plenty of menus on the table for the party. He asked me what would happen if he took it anyways, and I told him he was more than welcome to do so. He threw the menu at my face. That wasn’t the first or last time someone threw something at me while hostessing.
I used to work at a restaurant with an outdoor bar and patio. People liked to sit outside for hours, which is why we didn’t have wait times for the patio. I’d offer to seat people inside, explaining to them that the best I could do was give them a pager if they still wanted to sit outside, but after an hour or more of waiting, some would throw the pagers at me in frustration and walk out. I mean physically throw a heavy pager at my face.
For me, it isn’t just the anger to process — it’s my self-esteem. When people treat you poorly every day, it starts to affect you.
I’m not saying you can’t have what you want; I’m just saying you have to wait. And then they tell me that I’m bad, or I’m rude, or I’m mean. And that’s what chips away at me. I go home and carry that with me, especially when people are mean to me but perfectly nice to everyone else. It makes you think, “Really? You managed to be nice to everyone else in the building, but you’ll continue to tell me that I’m a bad person because I once asked you to wait for five minutes?”
Maya, Hospital Nurse
29, San Diego
At my first job, angry and frustrated patients were pretty much part of my normal day. I’d be torn between patients calling left and right: One is vomiting, another is complaining of severe pain, and another has trouble breathing. I learned very quickly that people who feel like crap do not like to wait for help. Some days it seemed like I couldn’t do anything right. No matter how hard I worked, there were always patients who would chew me out. I cried a few times after work, not just because I was stressed out from the pressure, but because I felt underappreciated and useless.
I lost my cool with a patient once. She had accused me of not giving her pain medication, even though I was literally injecting her with it as we were talking. She started shouting at me, and refused to believe [I was using] the medication vial I had just shown her. She stormed into the bathroom and muttered “Chinese bitch” under her breath. I’m not Chinese. I was so pissed,I just walked out of the room.
Over time you learn that you can’t take everything personally, be it a frustrated patient or a cranky doctor snapping at you over the phone. If I let every negative encounter with someone ruin my day, I’d never make it through these 12-hour shifts. Wine and beer after a shift help too. A lot.
Albert, Foreclosure Agent
I was a foreclosure agent for 12 years. My company worked with banks to foreclose properties: I worked directly with mortgage owners who had defaulted on their loans, even though they weren’t my clients — the bank was. Oftentimes, the homeowners knew that something was happening, but they didn’t understand the process. They didn’t understand how far along they were. I found myself answering a lot of questions that their attorneys
and the bank weren’t answering for them.
Some people blamed me personally. Some thought I was with the bank. Some people lashed out, or their neighbors did for them. I once came to a house and I wasn’t even there to talk to the neighbors and they yelled at me. We had a couple people threaten to use bombs against us. Others threatened to shoot me or murder me. I got what I call “cartoony” letters with completely off-the-wall legal threats. All kinds of wild things.
I’m Mormon, and Mormons have a scripture that says that when you’re in the service of your fellow man, you’re in the service of your God. That’s one of the things I would constantly recite to myself, because doing this work was partly a religious undertaking for me. I had a responsibility to help everybody to my utmost, because that’s what my religion asks of me.
Aileen, Retail Employee
I worked at Gap and Sephora as a salesperson. In both cases, one out of every five customers were mad or frustrated. I saw the full range: people who were low-level ticked off to people who were screaming and shouting. Most started somewhere in the middle and adjusted their rage based on a few factors. They would get angrier depending on how long they had to wait or how much I could give them. A shorter line and a quick solution helped a lot, but often that was well beyond my control.
My most vivid memory of working at Gap was a Friday close. A woman comes in and tries to use a coupon that expired two or three years prior and I tell her I can’t honor it. I was just an hourly employee and it wasn’t as if it had expired a day or two before. When I said I couldn’t honor it, she pretended not to speak English and I said, “Okay, well your total is $335.20.” She started screaming at me in Korean and threw a shoe at me.
When a person yelled at me in full view of others, one of two things would happen: either the next person would consider it open season, or they would be super nice to make up for their fellow customer.
People were nicer to me when they saw me wearing my college class ring. It’s weird, but I was working in a small college town, so if they thought I was more like them and just working for a little pocket money, they were more pleasant to me. It didn’t feel good, but it really cut down on the yelling.
I think my own personal reaction to anger from strangers now is more avoidant than it once was. I just don’t want to ruin my own day.
Shondale, Security Guard
I work for Chicago Public Schools as a security guard slash counselor slash big brother slash uncle slash problem-solver for teachers, students, and staff. See, problem-solving doesn’t come naturally to these students. They are pretty hard on each other. Joke sessions, roasts, disagreements can turn serious in a heartbeat. When someone strikes a nerve and starts a physical altercation, that’s when I come in and have to de-escalate the situation. My job is to regulate those who can’t self-regulate.
If you’ve got a first-year teacher who doesn’t have a handle on their class, situations often get out of hand: Kids yell back and forth, and yelling usually leads to physical violence. There’s an audience in the classroom, and they feed off it. I get called in and separate the two kids and bring them into a different environment immediately. When it’s just one-on-one and they don’t have their friends egging them on, they calm down and realize it’s not serious. You guys are about to fight because she said your hair is ugly? Like really, a yo mama joke? Like, why did you call that girl a hoe on Facebook last night? These kids haven’t been taught how to talk things out, so I have to show them how to do it. They just want to be heard.
Most of them were never taught how to act because their parents were too young and not really able to provide the love and the support that they need. Kids emulate what their parents do. And the parents aren’t even mature enough.
I can empathize with them. I was exposed to the same things these kids are exposed to. And I know I can’t save them all, but shit, who else is gonna do it if it’s not me?
—Interview by Madison Kahn
Michelle, Call Center Employee
I work in a very large bank, and field between 120 and 150 calls per day. I get at least one angry call each day, and some days are worse than others. Oftentimes the caller isn’t mad at us, just at the situation. But, being a faceless, nameless person on the other end of the phone means I tend to get the grumpy, short end of the stick.
There are definitely people who tend to be angrier. People who are more highly educated, people who are (or at least sound) white, upper class, and business people. They come from places of entitlement and places of wealth and think that just because they’re used to being treated like they’re more special, they can treat anyone like garbage. And they think it means we can make exceptions to rules, including federal laws, for them.
I had a gentleman who was obviously of a race and region different than my own give me a call and ask why his card wasn’t working. He had bounced repeated payments out of his credit card, so we had put a hold on his account. When I told him this, he repeatedly insisted that I was a racist, that everyone I worked for was a racist, and that I was saying this because he was of a different race.
I kept my calm, insisted quite the opposite, and attempted to explain why we were holding his payments. He hung up on me, and I tore off my headset and swore rather loudly, earning a reprimand from my overseer. Internally, I was pissed as hell. But I did not say a word of this to him. I never have. I’ve never taken my anger or irritation out on a credit card holder. All of our calls are recorded. If I were to do so, I would be in severe trouble. I will admit to bad mouthing people on mute though.
My desk is filled with things to distract me from the anger that comes my way. Things like bright coloring pages, a rubber duck stress toy, a set of posters depicting a triptych of dragons, a crocheted Pokémon, a warm, fuzzy blanket… All of these things remind me of who I am and make it easier for me to breathe more easily when the person on the other end of the phone wants to rip my head off. I also color. A lot.
Some names have been changed.
These interviews are taken from Anxy No. 1: The Anger Issue. The inaugural issue examines anger from a range of perspectives, featuring Margaret E. Atwood, Ijeoma Oluo, Melissa Spitz, and many more.