There are times when you want to lash out at someone who makes your life miserable. Perhaps a work colleague or your closest intimate partner is being, for lack of a better word, mean. You feel attacked, outraged, and misunderstood. Worse, you feel that you've hit a brick wall and are not being heard or taken seriously.
Italian psychologist Francesca D’Errico and philosopher Isabella Poggi (2014) use the term “acid communication” to refer to what happens when people who feel angered and mistreated restrain themselves from expressing how they truly feel. As they state, “The person who performs acid communication is feeling angry due to some feeling of injustice and would like to express one’s anger, but cannot do so due to a feeling of impotence, both to recover from the injustice undergone, and to prevent the negative consequences of one’s expression” (p. 663). We might call this passive aggressiveness: You want to say something negative but because you feel you can’t (for whatever reason), you release your anger in indirect ways.
The acid speaker, D’Errico and Poggi point out, uses irony, sarcasm, insinuation, and indirect criticism through their words and tone of voice to “project the image of a smart and brilliant person” (p. 664). People can also use body language to accomplish the same goals through gestures, facial expressions, and movements of the head and body. We’ve all been guilty of this at some time or another: You feel attacked, don’t want to say anything, so instead you purse your lips or fold your arms, perhaps accompanied by an upward eye roll.
In a questionnaire study of 80 Italian young adults, D’Errico and Poggi identified:
Participants stated that they were prompted toward acid communication when they thought the other person in the situation was behaving in the same way, was envious, wanted to make the other person feel guilty, or felt misunderstood. They reported feeling nervous, angry, and afraid to come out with their actual feelings or true response.
The acid person doesn’t seem to be received well by others. Adjectives that participants used to describe such individuals included irritable, grumpy, arrogant, surly, rude, not helpful, and snappy.
Being an acid communicator doesn’t get you anywhere with others. What’s perhaps even worse, it may even put you in a bad mood about yourself. The result of acid communication, the Italian researchers found, include feeling guilty, among other negative emotions regarding your own role in the interaction.
The best way to avoid being an acid communicator is to express yourself directly in an open and receptive way. Ironically, you may fear doing this because you’ll be perceived as overly critical or argumentative. To get out of this bind, you instead need to find a way to engage in fruitful dialogues. Taleb Khairallah, Roger Worthington, and Ali Mattu of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS) recently produced guidelines for people involved in “Difficult Dialogues.” With their permission, I’ve adapted 5 of these guidelines here:
1. Don’t dominate the dialogue.
A “dialogue” is not the same as a monologue. If you’re having a conversation, allow for sufficient give and take. As the APAGS authors suggest:
2. Respect opinions.
Show that all viewpoints are important.
3. Everyone is encouraged to participate.
This includes you.
4. Moderators are facilitators, not participants.
5. Sometimes our best thinking comes after reflection.
Reflection helps bring psychological closure to a dialogue. Ask yourself the following questions after the conversation is over:
Being a good conversationalist is slightly different from being someone who can engage in dialogue. The kind of dialogue in which people feel valued, listened to, and respected is the kind that produces the greatest strides, and fulfillment in yourself and your dialogue partners.
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D’Errico, F., & Poggi, I. (2014). Acidity. The hidden face of conflictual and stressful situations. Cognitive Computation, 6(4), 661-676. doi:10.1007/s12559-014-9280-1