- If your partner is a constant screamer, especially at you, this can put a great deal of strain on your relationship.
- A new paper on how to interpret people's messages when they're upset can help you understand what your partner is trying to say to you.
- Loud vocalizations can be difficult to interpret; knowing this helps one communicate better with others, even when one is upset.
How often would you say your partner screams at you when they’re angry? If you can’t even remember, this is most likely a good sign. However, if your answer is that it’s too frequent to count, then you’re probably not very happy about the situation. If screaming is a part of your daily interchanges with your partner, you may figure that there’s not much you can do to change things. Luckily, based on new work in the area of emotions and communication, there may be a remedy.
What’s Behind the Scream?
In a recently published paper, Baker College’s Stan Amaladas (2022) uses the framework of storytelling to understand what’s going on when people scream. In what the author cites as a “narrative-interpretive framework,” “orienting to the scream as a story…is a way of listening and understanding the threat and meaning behind the scream." In other words, you need to figure out what your partner is trying to tell you by screaming. From this perspective, Amaldas lays out “Ethical Listening for Understanding Principles (ELUP)" that can help get you past the annoyance and personal distress you feel when your partner screams. These are two principles that follow from the ELUP approach.
1. Stay silent; quoting an earlier author, Amaladas notes that, “To listen fully requires silence” (p. 47).
2. Regard the scream “as a question that is worthy of our attention” (p. 48). Someone is screaming at you because they feel they’re not, literally, being heard.
Asking yourself if what your partner feels isn’t coming across could help you get to the bottom of their screams, especially if they tend to scream in particular circumstances. Using the Baker College author’s storytelling framework, you would do this in a way that helps illuminate “the harm to personal identity” they feel.
The Stories a Screamer Might Tell
The Amaladas paper is not an empirical study in the strict sense, as it is written from a more qualitative, narrative interpretive framework. Following this method, he analyzes the story of a screamer. She is a physician conducting an exercise in front of members of her team in which she practices what would happen with a dying patient. In the story, she described herself as screaming when she felt that the senior doctors were heckling her and interfering with her ability to help the practice patient recover.
In reality, no one was dying, and it’s quite possible, Amaladas argues, that she’s simply exaggerating the dramatic nature of the situation and the behavior of the other doctors. However, this doesn’t matter, as a story doesn’t need to have happened in order to reveal the threat to identity that the storyteller experiences. Thinking of the story as a metaphor allows the listener to get to her “truth,” which, in this case, refers to her lack of trust in the senior physicians to understand her own anxiety.
When you’re in a situation with a person who’s screaming, you’re obviously not going to be able to put a stop to it all in the moment and ask them to tell you a story. However, you can borrow from the narrative framework to engage in a listening session when tempers have subsided. Additionally, experimental work on how people judge emotions from vocal intensity (i.e., loudness) can provide another angle in figuring out how to handle your screaming partner.
Studying the Scream in the Laboratory
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, despite the frequency with which screaming does occur in real life, there’s relatively little research on the emotional and cognitive underpinnings of this particular method of communication. Indeed, virtually all research on the communication of emotions relies on the study of facial or other nonverbal cues. Yes, a person’s face may indicate that a scream is being emitted, but the person exposed to an actual screamer would be confronted with a great deal of vocal noise, which adds an entirely new dimension to the experience.
Indeed, when you think about it, someone screaming out of fear may have a very similar facial expression as someone expressing extreme anger. Try this out yourself. Look in the mirror while you feign a scream in fear vs. one in anger. You might even try producing a screaming face reacting to a positive emotion, such as joy or a happy surprise. Auditory cues should help resolve this ambiguity but, again, the emotion might not be all that clear. According to the Max-Planck-Institute for Empirical Aesthetic’s Natalie Holz and colleagues (2022), prior research points to the lack of a clear-cut relationship between an expressed emotion’s intensity and people’s ability to correctly gauge that emotion.
The research team recruited 11 speakers, all undergraduates at the Berklee College of Music in Boston with training in voice who also had stage experience as singers. These performers were prompted to put themselves in various emotional states, then produced vocal noises (without words) representing the emotions of achievement, triumph, anger, fear, pain, pleasure, and surprise. The question was whether, as the intensity of the sound increased, the participants recruited as judges (10 German individuals, average age of 28 years) would correctly guess the emotion the speaker was expressing. In all, they judged 1,092 vocalizations.
The purpose of the Max Planck study was to produce a set of stimuli that future researchers could use to test the communication of emotion through vocal intensity. Analyses within this dataset indicated that, as you might expect, louder vocalizations were associated with higher intensities, specifically, screams.
In previous work on this database, and getting to the point of how you know what a scream might mean (Holz et al., 2021), the research team found that there’s a “sweet spot” of an ideal intensity of emotion expression and identification of that emotion. The “peak emotions” are “maximally ambiguous.”
Turning Down Your Partner’s Volume
Now that you understand that screams are expressing an emotion the individual feels isn’t being perceived correctly, but that screams are “maximally ambiguous,” how can you then proceed to help reduce the volume level of your partner’s utterances?
People may scream their “truth,” as Anikan noted, when they tell a story in which they felt threatened in some way, but in the moment, the Holz et al. studies show just how difficult it can be to cut through the noise.
Using the strategy of “stopping and listening” may be difficult in the heat of the moment, but it might be just what you need to do in order to get to the underlying emotion. This approach can help you resolve the ambiguity of not knowing which emotion your partner is expressing at high decibel levels.
Maybe your partner is afraid, maybe they’re angry, or perhaps they’re frustrated because they feel (paradoxically) unheard. If you notice your partner screaming in very similar circumstances from day to day, you can also do more than listen. Research on emotion communication suggests the importance of context. The German students were hearing vocalizations produced by their American counterparts without the luxury of knowing what prompted those emotions. You have that luxury and, over time, can take advantage of it to help turn the heat down with your partner.
By the same token, what if you’re the screamer? What if you’re reading all of this and uncomfortably thinking about yourself as the one who constantly communicates at the highest volume levels? You can use the findings from this research to figure out ways to be more clear about what it is that bothers you, and then how to communicate those feelings in ways that lead to the “sweet spot” in accuracy judgments.
To sum up, ideal communication of emotions occurs when both partners listen and both partners feel heard. To ensure fulfillment in this important area of your relationship, recognizing the scream as a symptom can become the first step to finding a cure.
Facebook image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock
Amaladas, S. (2022). Facilitating listening for understanding through the use of stories. Journal of Leadership Studies, 15(4), 46–51. https://doi.org/10.1002/jls.21795
Holz, N., Larrouy-Maestri, P., & Poeppel, D. (2022). The variably intense vocalizations of affect and emotion (VIVAE) corpus prompts new perspective on nonspeech perception. Emotion, 22(1), 213–225. doi: 10.1002/jls.21795
Holz, N., Larrouy-Maestri, P., & Poeppel, D. (2021). The paradoxical role of emotional intensity in the perception of vocal affect. Scientific Reports, 11(1), 9663. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-88431-0