A friend of mine was so frustrated with her job and her boss and her life that one day she poured it all into an angry email.
Within seconds of detailing everything she hated about the management and the working environment, she hit "send." I'm not sure she'll ever admit to regretting she pushed that button, but it wasn't long before she was looking for new employment — and fortunately, she found it, and in a much happier place.
But by taking the time to compose the message, you're making yourself angrier — and the long-term effects can be surprisingly negative, say experts.
Anger researcher Ryan Martin Ph.D. has had his share of angry emails from disgruntled students. The messages are typically full of bolded words and lot of vivid punctuation. Even if the student has a great point, the message often is lost in the angry presentation, he says.
"Part of the problem with the angry email is that it really a lot of times ends up minimizing whatever points you had in the first place," says Martin, chair of the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. "They may actually have a good rationale for why they're angry, but it's kind of hard to see with all the explanation points and all the capitalized letters."
Why we do it
There appear to be two main reasons it's so appealing to send a quick electronic missive in the heat of anger.
"A lot of times when people have anger problems, it really is an impulsivity problem. They can't control their anger reaction, and email brings out the worst in us," Martin says. "It's so quick and so easy. You used to have to wait until you saw a person or you had to call them. Those things take time and the anger would diffuse itself. With email, you can respond when you are in the moment, when you are the most angry."
The other reason it's so easy and appealing is the element of social distance. It's relatively painless to yell and be not so nice when you don't see the person on the receiving end of your anger. Plus, you can keep going and going until you've unloaded all your vitriol.
"The closer you are to someone, when you are looking them in the eye, the more likely you are to pull some punches a little bit," says Martin. "With email you can rant. They can't stop you, they can't walk away, they can't cut you off. It's very easy to just unload."
But if you were to confront someone in person when you're angry, you would take cues from their body language. If they looked upset or angry in return, you'd respond accordingly. They could interrupt you or just decide they weren't going to listen to you anymore. Then the amazing rant you'd prepared wouldn't happen or would get cut off midstream.
Getting anger out of your system sounds like a good idea, but is it? (Photo: Mooshny/Shutterstock)
It feels good — at first
People feel good when they're in the midst of firing off an angry message. Martin has researched how and why people rant online, usually anonymously.
"One of the things people say is that it makes them feel better. They feel relaxed and relieved. When people are angry, they want to take some control of a situation — get some revenge or retribution or win back the situation. That impulse is really strong. And in sending an email, they feel like they've done something."
But those feelings are typically short-lived.
To put your anger into words, you have to relive what made you mad in the first place, and you often work yourself up even more.
"When people are writing about a situation, they're dwelling on it, they're ruminating on it, and when people do that, it makes them angrier in the long term," Martin says.
And, as the Wall Street Journal points out, an e-vent can do other damage, too.
A bad vent can come back to hurt you. You could alienate friends or family, or get pegged as a whiner or someone with anger-management issues. And because what happens on the Internet stays on the Internet — forever — you could do lasting damage to your reputation.
Writing can be good, sometimes
That's not to say it's never a good idea to write when you're angry. Some people find writing cathartic. They can write about anger as a way of processing their emotions or solving a problem. You may find it's a good idea to keep a journal where you can vent to your heart's content without hurting anyone's feelings or harming a relationship.
If you feel the need to do it via email, that can work, too. Just be smart about it.
"The devil is in the details," says Martin. "You can be angry and send a very articulate, thoughtful email and that won't necessarily be a problem. But if you send an angry, profanity-laced email, that can be a problem."
But before you hit 'send'
If smoke is coming out of your ears, try these tips before you vent electronically.
- Make an effort to talk to the person. Do it the old-fashioned way: in-person or on the phone. You'll be less likely to be nasty and in the time it takes you to call or walk down the hall, your anger will have subsided a bit.
- Write the email, but don't send it. Give it time, then go back and re-read it when you're not as livid. You may find that you want to change some of the wording — or maybe not send it at all.
- Have someone read it. Find a trusted friend or colleague who is removed from the situation and ask for an honest opinion.
Finally, Martin suggests, ask yourself what your goals are for writing (and sending) the email.
"Are you hoping to change the situation? Good, then be thoughtful about the goal. If you are just trying to vent and let the person know how mad you are, I don’t know if that's worth sending."