If there is one thing I made clear on this blog in the past year or so, it’s that all people are both irrational and ignorant. That’s not an insult, but merely an observation, one that goes for myself just as much as for everyone else. Still, this remains important, because once we become aware of it, we can change these things. We can become more open minded and more rational, if only we realised our own ignorance and irrationality.
Anger is a good example of this. Anger is an irrational emotion, one that is caused by a failure to understand another person’s motives. After all, every person has reasons to do what they do, and you will find that, just like yours, those reasons are quite rational. Anger and conflict, then, often arise from situations in which both sides did the most logical thing they could do, but in their ignorance, they fail to understand the other person’s point of view, regardless of the fact that, had they been in the other person’s place, they most likely would have done the exact same thing. This goes for nearly all conflict, and particularly that between friends. So why then don’t we just stop being angry at each other?
The reason is simple: because we don’t know any better. We don’t realise our own ignorance in times of anger. Now, you might be thinking “anger is natural and biological, you ****!”, but as it appears, that’s not true at all. In fact, anger, to a large extent, is a cultural thing. People in the West can get angry very quickly, but in the East, or particularly in “collectivistic” countries, anger is rare. Anger is an ego-focused emotion that can greatly threaten social relations, which are so very important. To quote an academic article by Markus & Kitayama (1991)*, “It is not that these people have learned to inhibit or suppress their “real” anger but that they have learned the importance of attending to others, considering others, and being gentle in all situations, and as a consequence very little anger is elicited.”
Interestingly enough, though, whereas someone in a collectivistic culture would suffer if they were prone to becoming angry (and thus unable to imagine another person’s point of view), in the West, the exact opposite is the case. Here, anger is used as a social tool to improve one’s own standing, and those people who are unable to get angry are the ones who are at a disadvantage. After all, if a person is angry at someone, apologies are expected. If both persons are angry at each other, these apologies will be mutual once they make up, but a person who cannot get angry because she can imagine another person’s point of view will not receive that apology. She already knows why the other person acted in a particular way, and that leaves a situation in which only she has to apologise. And if you’re the one to apologise every time, then you’re the one to blame. A culture of individualism, then, might just be characterised by ignorance and anger. Not quite the association people living in the West usually have with their own culture, but then again, perhaps that’s a bit of ignorance in itself.
So what does that mean in practice? In some ways, this post has proven to be rather contradictory: on the one hand, anger is an example of irrationality and ignorance that you can and should avoid, but at the same time, in the West, it is also a necessary component of social interaction, because to overcome that ignorance means to lose some of your “social standing.” But that’s just how the world works: sometimes culture is nothing more than one big contradiction. What the right answer is, the right way of dealing with this information, is something I cannot tell you. It’s a decision only you can make. Everyone is able to avoid anger as long as they have at least a bit of an open mind, but whether it’s desirable for your own well-being in an individualistic culture is a whole different story.
*Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (April 01, 1991). Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion, and Motivation. Psychological Review, 98, 2, 224-53.
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