March 16, 2018

Anger and Persuasion | Peer to Peer Review

Wayne Biven-TatumThis is sort of an open letter to some librarians I’ve encountered in the last year or so. The encounters left me puzzled as to what the librarians thought they were accomplishing.

For example, not long ago, I had an encounter with a librarian who leapt into a conversation with no understanding, injected irrelevancies with aggression, and grew belligerent and resentful when I reacted critically. He felt the need to interject angrily and repeatedly, as if repetitious anger would somehow win the day. Perhaps that sort of thing might work to quiet and frighten a dog or a small child, but all it does for me is bring some slight amusement at the combination of preening arrogance and rhetorical ineptitude.

Such librarians perhaps consider themselves merely passionate, but, from the outside, passion often passes for anger and aggression for irrelevant ranting. I bring this up because there are a lot of passionate, indeed even angry, librarians out there, and I would like to offer some advice on how to  persuade other people rather than alienate them, if persuasion and not intimidation is your goal. Some of us aren’t easily intimidated.

First, I want to turn to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, which I’ve addressed in Library Journal on another occasion. Smith writes about sympathy, but there are some emotions we simply can’t be sympathetic to, such as anger. After acknowledging the social utility of some passions, Smith writes:

[T]here is still something disagreeable in the passions themselves, which makes the appearance of them in other men the natural object of our aversion. The expression of anger towards any body present, if it exceeds a bare intimation that we are sensible of his ill usage, is regarded not only as an insult to that particular person, but as a rudeness to the whole company. Respect for them ought to have restrained us from giving way to so boisterous and offensive an emotion.

While we may be sympathetic to the cause of someone else’s anger, we can’t be sympathetic to the anger itself, which is why when angry people aren’t frightening (e.g., when they’re merely librarians ranting at other librarians), they come off as slightly ridiculous and offensive to everyone else. If we aren’t angry about whatever it is the angry person is angry about, then their anger distances us from them and makes us less likely to listen to them. The mere presence of anger or aggression hinders communication, and if communication is the goal, then uncontrolled emotions are a problem.

Unfortunately, this is true whether their cause is just, or whether they’re merely online trolls who want to “set the record straight” about whatever triviality they’ve worked up in their mind to be worth ranting about. If we want to persuade other people, rather than just vent our feelings, we need to curb, or at least hide, our anger. For the troll, that’s not necessary, since the anger is the point, but for everyone else it’s a necessary and difficult task.

Suppressing anger is rarely easy, especially if you’re passionate about your cause and it’s something that makes you understandably angry. But the alternative is to be ignored. It doesn’t matter how right you are or how righteous your cause. Anyone who doesn’t already agree with you is going to find you unpleasant and be more concerned with avoiding you than listening to you or supporting your cause. Repeated exposure just increases resistance.

This plays out mostly online, which is why I rarely read the comments to any online publication, but it can also show up in the workplace. If the general impression people have is that you’re an angry curmudgeon, they’re going to pay less attention to you, even when you’re absolutely right about whatever it is you’re angry about. It’s even possible that being ignored when you’re angry and absolutely right will just make you angrier, worsening the situation. Then you’ll just be ignored even more. It’s a cruel irony. That’s just not fair, you might say, but if anything can be conclusively proven, it’s that the world is not a fair place.

In the world of librarians, some handle this very well. Their equanimity and composure, sometimes in the midst of real injustice or ludicrous disorganization, is remarkable. They often become influential leaders of whatever movement they’re part of because of their ability to negotiate with people and direct people’s attention toward problems and away from their own emotions.

Myself, I sometimes find this a struggle, as a calm temperament never came naturally to me. When I find myself growing angry over trivialities, I often turn to the wisdom of the ancients, especially Epictetus, who teaches us that with practice we can learn to maintain equanimity even in the face of calamity, much less the relative insignificance of someone else being completely indifferent to our concerns. (FYI: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy is a recent and very readable philosophical work on Stoicism, and Epictetus’s Enchiridion is a good, quick read.)

Most likely my advice will go unheeded by those librarians most in need of it. People lacking calm don’t want to be told to calm down, even if their lack of calm is actually undermining their goals. They’ll think (angrily), who is this guy to give me advice!? If that’s so, there’s really nothing I can do about it other than ignore them and go about my business. The only good thing about dealing with angry ranters is how easy it is to stop listening, stop reading, stop responding, or just walk away.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum About Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Wayne Bivens-Tatum ( is the Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University and an adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. He blogs at Academic Librarian.

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  1. Nikki Coles says:

    Anger and Persuasion…

    Angry Librarians? Are they any angrier than non-librarians? Why would librarians be angry with each other? Why would they be singled out as angrier than anyone else?
    Maybe they are only angry with that writer for wasting librarian – and everyone else’s time.
    And no – I don’t want to subscribe to this guy – not even for free!

  2. Why do you think the onus ought to be on the angry person to change, rather than on the person who finds the anger disagreeable?

    • Good question, Emily. Based on what little feedback I’ve gotten on this piece, I think I could have been clearer. I’m not suggesting angry people don’t have justified reasons to be angry, nor am I suggesting that angry people necessarily stop being angry. I’m not making a political or emotional point here, but a rhetorical one. People perceive other people’s anger as a threat, and threat, as Carl Rogers’ argued, hinders communication. It doesn’t matter who’s right or who’s wrong, if someone is addressing you angrily, you’re more likely to ignore that person or shut down than listen to them sympathetically and consider what they’re saying.

      Or maybe not. I have a question. If someone who disagrees with you is addressing you angrily—e.g., angry look, hostile tone, raised voice—what is your response? Do you start agreeing with them? Does that anger persuade you that they’re right? If someone is hostile towards you, would you consider it your obligation to ignore that hostility? Or does it instead turn you off or reinforce your own beliefs and opinions?

      The research on motivated reasoning shows that when presented with evidence contradicting their beliefs, people tend to hold those beliefs even firmer. The work of Rogers and others suggests that when people feel threatened they stop listening sympathetically. The combination supports my rhetorical point that if you want to persuade other people that you’re right about something, arguing with them angrily is counterproductive.

      However, there are other ways that anger can be persuasive. Righteous anger over a just cause might sway bystanders your way, for example. But I was talking about trying to persuade other people to change their minds and agree with you about whatever point you’re trying to make. So if you’re not trying to persuade someone to change their mind, then my argument here is irrelevant.

    • I realized later that I didn’t address your question directly. I didn’t argue that the onus to change ought to be on anyone. I wasn’t claiming that this is how people OUGHT to behave, only that this is generally how people DO behave. People perhaps ought to engage in fruitful dialog aimed at mutual understanding, but that’s not generally what people do.

      Also, from what I’ve heard there are people who don’t want to agree with me. I won’t say they disagree, because the incident I heard about seemed to be mostly ad hominem attacks on me rather than any discussion of whether I was right or wrong. However, the impression I get is that those people are putting themselves into the place of the justifiably angry person others should agree with, and not in the position of someone being angrily ranted at. Nothing I’ve ever read or experienced leads me to believe that when people are angrily ranted at, they ignore the anger and the rant and instead focus on the content of the rant instead of the tone and are likely to be persuaded to change their minds. Maybe I’m wrong, though, and most people are saints who respond to angry people who disagree with them with sympathy and compassion and are persuaded by them.

  3. I am all for expressing opinions. However, I see no point to this article. Those of us in the library field tend to come off as know-it-alls, because that is what we are professionally. Personally, if I don’t know the answer or if I have nothing pertinent to say, I don’t say anything. Or I may say “I got nothing.” All people act angrily at times and respond badly when they should not. This is true of librarians and patrons. If the librarian had acted smugly as opposed to argumentatively would you have written an article about it?