28 Mar 2022

Anger management, Victorian-style

“A loud voice is both disagreeable and vulgar. It is better to err by the use of too low than too loud a tone.”

“When you cannot agree with the propositions advanced in general conversation, be silent. If pressed for your opinion, give it with modesty. Never defend your own views too warmly.”

Routledge’s Manual of Etiquette, 1860

Victorian etiquette dictated that a civilised gentleman rarely loses his temper and never in public. They did not even countenance the possibility that a lady might do so.

In the 21st century this advice seems quaint and old-fashioned as we have all become less inhibited about expressing our emotions. There are so many potential provocations: a heated argument, an off-colour remark, a joke in poor taste, a personal insult.

It is all too easy to see red – to shout, to swear even to lash out – especially if you find yourself defending someone you love who has been insulted. But consider the fact that an intemperate or aggressive reaction might be worse than the original insult. It will take what might have been a throwaway or ill-judged remark and place it centre-stage, magnifying the original insult and focusing everyone’s attention upon it.

A caustic rejoinder, quietly-spoken reproach or acerbic dismissal will all be much more effective weapons in your armoury. Your aim is to wrong-foot the offender, ideally to embarrass them and to extract an apology. You will find yourself happily occupying the moral high ground.

However, if you lose your temper you will turn the offender into a victim of your over-harsh riposte. The original provocation will be forgotten and sympathy will swing in entirely the wrong direction.

Traditional strictures against losing your temper, or even raising your voice, in public were an effective way of maintaining harmonious relations. It meant that unseemly scenes were avoided, and everybody was able to save face. It also meant that people became skilled at witty putdowns, adept at using well-chosen words to devastating effect.

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