Anger, Men and Women: Same Emotion, Different Expression

Anger is an essential signal that cannot be ignored.

Posted May 29, 2018

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Anger is an essential signal that cannot be ignored. Anger can signal someone crossing a boundary, frustration when things are not right and most importantly, anger can maintain the integrity of our sense of self. Many women have been conditioned to believe they need to play the peace maker and not rock the boat. They also believe that harmony is “normal.” If harmony is “normal” then, conflict is abnormal. Not true. Leaders know that where there are people, there will be conflict; it is inevitable. A leader is often measured by her ability to manage conflict. Her high need for affiliation and approval will often force her to go along to get along; it is risky business for her to jeopardize relationships.

Harriet Lerner, a psychotherapist at the Menninger Foundation, explains the difficulties women have expressing anger. She also addresses the sex difference:

     "Women who openly express anger at men are especially suspect…we all know that ‘those angry women’ turn everybody off.  Unlike our heroes, who fight and even die for what they believe in… The direct expression of anger, especially at men, makes us unladylike, unfeminine, unmaternal, and sexually unattractive…They are devoid of femininity."

Women often exhibit more indirect ways of expressing anger, like passive-aggressive behavior. A woman might get mad at someone not directly, but indirectly. Passive-aggressive behavior may appear innocent on the surface (conveniently misunderstanding something, forgetting something, being tardy), but underneath the behavior, a rage flows. Women often have to come in the back door in expressing their anger and common forms are sarcastic sniping, mocking, silent treatment and crimes behind the scenes (sabotage work). It is natural and normal to feel anger; if you never get angry, it means you have no boundaries or you will not acknowledge them-a cause of depression.

Women often use nonverbals, especially the smile, to soften the blunt force of a conflict and anger. She cannot jeopardize her femininity and she feels the need to get over her anger like she has the flu. Women are not supposed to rock the boat; they are supposed to be the master negotiator and serve as peacemaker. So she may appear affable but in reality, she is seething. By being affable, she is mitigating the turmoil of expressing and feeling anger.

One of the greatest challenges in conflict is allowing the productive expression of anger. Women may have to be coached or given permission that it is “safe” to express anger without jeopardizing their femininity or relationships.

We know conflict is inevitable. It is a natural, normal part of life. Where there are relationships, there will be conflict.  No workplace is without conflict. When women are not equipped with productive conflict management tools, it can result in problems that are costly like poor retention, low morale, and poorly functioning teams. Women can learn more productive responses and resolve their disputes.