In the 19th century, anger was a minor but indispensable attribute of the ideal American man. He could hold his temper like a gentleman during petty disputes “but [was] implacable when legitimately roused,” writes Peter N. Stearns, a historian at George Mason University.
By the 1920s, though, corporate capitalists had linked anger with inefficiency, and the emotion lost its luster. Anger was found to lead to labor disruptions, frazzled coworkers, and weakened sales in the service and retail industries. A spate of anger restrictions was imposed on the country’s workers. The preference for restraint soon extended to social interactions of all kinds. Boxing fell out of favor among the middle class, and trendy “fair fighting” handbooks counseled frustrated spouses to scream their displeasure into an empty closet, rather than at each other. A United Auto Workers pamphlet from the 1940s admonished union activists that a “lost temper means a lost argument.”
Studies show that today Americans are more likely to want to conceal their anger than the Chinese, heirs of Confucius, the great master of self-control. Even so, American cultural critics continue to diagnose anger as the country’s “leading emotional problem.” While he does not decry the virtues of cheerfulness, Stearns believes that the emphasis on suppressing anger can “create real confusion about one’s own authentic emotions,” make one more susceptible to distress when encountering anger, and diminish the public’s willingness to protest wrongs.
Some groups, whether corporate executives, high school basketball coaches, or right-wing pundits, ignore or reject the “pressure to keep the fires of emotion banked,” Stearns says, and may easily intimidate—even control—the mild-mannered. A more nuanced approach to anger control might teach the “uses as well as abuses of anger.”