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Commuter Rage Now Threatens Workplace - 2003-08-17

There have been a number of reported incidents of so-called "road rage" in the United States, and police departments are cracking down on drivers who express their frustration and anger through reckless and violent behavior on the highway. New studies reveal that many people are also taking out the stress of a long commute on colleagues at work.

Road rage is turning into what some are calling "desk rage." Psychology professor Dwight Hennessy of Buffalo State College says the 130 people he surveyed in upstate New York admit to all sorts of negative behavior in the office after hassling with long and tense drives into work. These stressed commuters snap at coworkers, glare at passersby in the hall, even deliberately sabotage the work of bosses and colleagues. "Overt aggression doesn't happen that often, because if you're overtly aggressive at work, you're probably going to get fired," he says. "People are doing a lot of things like staring and dirty looks and gossiping and spreading rumors, a lot of the more indirect type of aggressive behaviors. And this is happening for people who normally don't have an aggressive personality. But what we can say with some confidence is that when a person has the low traffic stress, regardless of their personality, they're demonstrating very little aggression at work," he says.

Even though the maddening commute is over, and the person has arrived in a new environment at work, the frustration lingers. Dwight Hennessy says that's because stress is a cognitive, or mental, state, as well as an emotional one. "It might not be on our mind all the time, but when something else comes up in the workplace, for instance, because we're now in this mindset, this state of being agitated and irritated and accepting of aggression, then we're more likely to be set off," he says.

You could call this the "kick the cat" syndrome. Psychologist Patricia Ellison-Potter does, comparing it to someone who is angry at a situation or person and takes it out by kicking the cat. Ms. Ellison-Potter says her evening commute home, sixty kilometers north of her office in Washington, DC, is far more taxing than her early-morning drive to work. So in her case, the built-up tension carries over to her home life more than to the job. "Many times I find myself in a very bad mood when I get home in the evening. And so I could see where if you take somebody who reacts to situations like that in a fairly aggressive manner, then they would transfer [those feelings to the workplace]," she says. "It's a standard coping style, what Freud called 'displacement.'"

One of the pioneers in the study of the sort of anger that can spill from the road to the workplace is Charles Donald Spielberger, who coined the term "trait anger". He says those exhibiting "trait anger" are likely to turn the emotion outward, sometimes subtly, when they feel they are being criticized or treated unfairly. "People who engage in the passive-aggressive expression of anger learn to do this because they get satisfaction from the impact of their passively expressed anger on people that they don't like," he says. "The amount of anger that they experience is a function of how high they are on the trait of anger. They can express it immediately in road rage. Or they can suppress the anger, turn it inward, and in the workplace it can come out. And vice-versa. Persons can experience anger on the job, and it can come out while they are commuting as well, on their return trip home."

Professor Spielberger and other researchers emphasize that it is only in rare cases, when anger and frustration have built up over long periods, that road rage or desk rage lead to what's called "going postal", or becoming angry enough to kill people at work, as has happened in job sites such as letter sorting facilities.

What are people doing, or what should, they do, to overcome commuter frustration? There's no one answer.

Many at a recent panel of experts on road-to-desk rage, sponsored by the American Psychological Association, strongly endorsed deep-breathing exercises as calming and cathartic.

One commuter who endures a one-and-one-half-hour drive from the outer suburbs to his job in a center city recommends listening to a good "book on tape," which he says distracts him. Others prefer humorous tapes, though the supply can quickly run out. Psychology professor Dwight Hennessy says some people play soothing sounds like these songbirds, tweeting in the forest.

But he's found that birds and crashing waves and other relaxation tapes can actually get on the nerves of some drivers and make matters worse. The same with music, unless it's carefully chosen by the driver himself.

And "himself" is the right word. Mr. Hennessy says, for reasons still being studied, it is man, overwhelmingly, who take their road rage to the workplace.