From Annoyance and Frustration to Anger

These are the most important signs to be able to read, as you may be putting yourself at physical risk if you do not correctly identify them! On the flip side, if you yourself are unintentionally displaying these behaviors, you are very likely scaring people away from interacting with you. So we’re going to break this one down a bit more than usual.

If you notice that someone you are interacting with is expressing signs of annoyance or frustration, STOP! Ask them what’s wrong. Try to help them solve the problem, if possible. If they are annoyed or frustrated with you, apologize for making them feel that way, and try to understand what you did that triggered those emotions. (You do not need to apologize for who you are, just for making them feel unpleasant feelings. Make sure they understand that your intentions are purely friendly.)

Politeness Cues: Someone who is annoyed at you will typically express this indirectly, hoping you’ll adjust your behavior before an actual confrontation is required. Although they may not put their feeling directly into words, you should be able to notice that they are employing fewer linguistic politeness strategies than they did previously or than the situation would seem to warrant. (For more on this, see power & solidarity.) When someone is downright angry, however, they may begin expressing this quite directly, with expletives, insults, threats, and accusations. On the other hand, some people will withhold language altogether if they are angry, giving you “the silent treatment” or “the cold shoulder.” In a rage, some people become incoherent.

Loudness: Someone who is annoyed or frustrated will typically raise their volume. If the feeling grows into anger, there will be another noticeable change in volume, but it can go in either direction, towards shouting or becoming very quiet. Threats, insults, expletives and other angry words may be shouted or hissed, but in either case will be made with greater than usual intensity. (You can see the tendons standing out in the angry person’s neck!) The louder the shouting, the more obvious the other signals will also be (more pronounced facial expressions, bigger and sharper gestures).

Pitch: Someone who is annoyed or frustrated will typically raise their pitch, and this will raise further as they become angry. Even macho men tend to squeak a bit when really angry. Irregular, exaggerated up-and-down intonation patterns are a further sign of anger.

Pronunciations: Someone who is annoyed or frustrated will typically begin using a more clipped, formal pronunciation, e.g., really spitting out their /t/ sounds, separating their words rather than running them together – and this will continue to increase as the feeling grows into anger.

Facial expression and gaze: Eyes may be wide or narrowed, and eye contact is prolonged (a “hard stare,” with eyebrows raised or contracted). The mouth may be closed, with lips pressed tightly together, as the person tries to “swallow” his or her anger. [Note, however, that a slightly tense mouth without other signs of annoyance or anger may simply be a sign that the speaker is determined, or is thinking hard, or disagrees with what you just said (without feeling angry about it).] As the feeling grows, the lips form a thinner line, and may even retract and turn inwards. Or the corners of the lips may turn down into a fierce scowl. Accompanying either of these displays, you’ll see the nostrils flare and the tendons in the neck stick out.  (Note that it is generally easy to “read” anger in the lower mouth area, without need for eye contact.) When the feeling of anger escalates to the point where the person is aggressive, there may be a fierce baring of the teeth. (Yes, just like gorillas and chimps — we’ve inherited this primate reflex. There’s no risk of you mistaking this for a smile — it’s terrifying!)

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This expression (mouth screwed up, neck tendons sticking out) was fleeting, but the redness of face and the drawing together of eyes (lowered, furrowed brow) lasted throughout his utterance.

Posture and proxemics: The body is held erect and the muscles are tense. Someone who is annoyed or frustrated may orient their body away from the person who has annoyed them, but someone who has escalated to feeling angry is likely to move back and forth, toward and away from the source of the anger. As they move in, they are likely to invade the other’s personal space (< 1.5 feet). (We actually use the expression “getting (up) in someone’s face” for this kind of a challenge.)

Gestures: In general, the frequency and size of gestures increases as someone becomes angry. A sharp jabbing of the index finger (like pointing, but not intended to actually point anything out) expresses hostility, as does the clenching of fists (or indeed, the clenching of muscles in general). If you have self-stimulatory gestures that involve sharp, quick movements (like flicking of fingers) or clenched muscles or large movements such as the waving of arms, others may unconsciously respond to these as angry and threatening behaviors. This makes it difficult for them to interact with you, as the “fight or flight” response takes over.

The words themselves reveal no more than the fact that “there is no school today,” but she is clearly angry — as if you had told her there was school in order to play a cruel trick on her and she’s now confronting you about it. Notice the intensity, the lowered brow, the scowl, the tendons standing out in her neck, the way her head juts forward as if punctuating her words….

Can you hear it in his voice?