What Is Your Exasper-Rate?

Exasperation is good--the question is when and how fast?

Posted Feb 16, 2013

I embrace exasperation as a fundamental, natural and useful human response.  I say this because some people don’t, or pretend they don’t anyway, especially when they’re exasperated that someone is exasperated with them. They try to ban expressions of exasperation with edicts like “don’t get snarky,” or “don’t call names” or “don’t interrupt me.”

Despite and because of these efforts to ban exasperation, we have proliferated a seemingly endless repertoire of ways to say “I’ve had it. I won’t go along with that.” 

Where there’s a won’t there’s a way, an exasperated way to express “nope,” in so many words and gestures--subtle or blatant. 

Our ways of saying “nope, I’m not buying this” branch like tree roots, I suspect for similar reasons.  Exasperation with things that get in our way is how we stand our ground rooted in our aspirations, commitments, beliefs and values. When our roots get in each other’s way, we’re likely to get exasperated and then exasperated with each other’s exasperations.  And then we try to block each other’s exasperations by imposing seemingly rock-solid moral bans on one or another form exasperation takes. And like roots around rocks, our exasperations find work-arounds:

Don’t call names.
Fine I’ll just think them about your exasperating behavior.

Don’t interrupt.
Fine I’ll look impatient and long suffering while you rant exasperatingly.

Don’t roll your eyes.
Fine, I’ll pinch my lips exasperatedly

Don’t say “whatever” in that snarky tone.
Fine I’ll grumble, “Fine” a hair above just below your radar.

I wish we could all admit that exasperation is natural and even productive. It’s not just deep in our roots; it is our roots. If we admitted it we could finally get to the right questions about exasperation. Not whether to ever get exasperated, but when? Under what circumstances? How fast? And for how long?

Some people are exasperation express trains, even bullet express trains. The slightest obstacle and they leap from receptive to exasperated. Once they arrive at exasperation they tend to stay.  You could say they have a high exasper-rate.

What causes their high rate?  It’s hard to tell. Maybe it’s back pain, or temperament, psoriasis, or an awful childhood. Maybe it’s indulgence, hubris, a spoiled childhood, a lust to put people down. Maybe it’s a chip on their shoulders, unconscious self-doubt, vulnerability, something to hide. Maybe it’s that they’re living under broad-brush oppression, so they’re exasperated all the time. It’s hard for us to imagine living North Korea without having a high exasper-rate.  Except that we’d be shot if we showed it.  Maybe some people have a high exasper-rate because they used to live under such oppression, their roots of self-assertion blocked at every turn. Maybe they’re making up for lost time asserting their exasper-roots every which way now that they’re free.

Living around someone with a high exasper-rate can be, well, exasperating. To someone with a high exasper-rate you’re only as good as your last mistake. 

Still, people with a high exasper-rate aren’t always exasperating.  They can be exhilarating if you’re exasperated about the same things. They’re high exasper-rate can be contagious.  They say “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!” And you say “Yeah, come to think of it, he’s right.”

Then you can be exasperated together which can become a satisfying pastime, a cliquish lifestyle, or in some cases, a virtuous crusade or a apocalyptic mob.  Not all ways of expressing exasperation are equally gentle. 

And yet all forms of expressing exasperation have their place, even legions of exasperated people taking to the streets weapons in hand, to overthrow or kill—there are times when even that expression of exasperation is appropriate. Think Egypt.

That they all have their place means we should concentrate most of our moral attention on tuning our exasperations carefully to circumstances. 

Unfortunately, and exasperatingly we tend to dissipate most of our moral attention on pretend universal bans on one or all forms of exasperation.

“Don’t interrupt” is a good example.  There are times when we want and request the space to talk extendedly. But it’s different when people snap in a high-minded exasperated tone “Don’t interrupt” as if to say, “There is a universal moral code banning interruption.  The fact that you interrupt is further and conclusive evidence that you are immoral.” Ask any movie director—realistic dialogue is full of interruptions. There’s no ban on interruption and the person who asserts that there is, has probably been known to interrupt too.

Don’t be snarky, name-calling, disrespectful, uncaring, eye rolling, impolite—the list goes on--a bootless effort to eradicate exasperation. 

Which is not going to happen.  Exasperation finds expression.

Which is not to say feel free to get exasperated any time you want, but rather is an argument that we should all get off our high horses long enough to pay attention to what gets us on them, and what should get us on them--how fast we mount and dismount them. Pay attention to your exasper-rate not because you want it to approach zero, but because you want to feel wronged by the right things, not the wrong ones.