Don’t Tell Me To Relax: How Anger and Gender Influence Persuasion

Female boss mad for employee
By Jill D. Schmid, Ph.D.

If you’re a woman, there’s probably been at least one time in your life when someone (my money says it was a man) has told you that you “need to relax.” I’ve been told this a few times and, each time, the person pretty quickly realized it wasn’t the smartest move. Recalling these events, two thoughts come to mind: 1) I can honestly report that I wasn’t out of control, yelling, or being irrational. Instead, I was simply strongly asserting an argument about an issue – usually something political. And, 2) I’ve never witnessed or participated in a “heated” discussion and heard someone tell a man who is aggressively arguing his point that he should “relax.”

I was reminded of all of this as I read “One Angry Woman: Anger Expression Increases Influence for Men, but Decreases Influence for Women, During Group Deliberation.” The research, conducted at Arizona State University and the University of Illinois at Chicago, is a fascinating look into how a man’s versus a woman’s “anger” is perceived and then utilized by others when making decisions. While years of research (and real life experiences) show that women are often subjected to harsh criticism for being “too emotional” and are often labeled as “Bitches” (and worse) when behaving in similar ways to men (i.e., being aggressive or dominant in work situations), this particular study goes one step further and explores how aggressively advancing one’s position is undermined by simply being a woman.

In the study, 210 college students participated in a computer deliberation simulation. Each student subject was assigned to a group of five other “participants.” Subjects watched a presentation of a murder case, read summaries of openings, eye witness statements, closings, and saw crime scene photos. After casting a preliminary vote, each subject “deliberated” with the others via typed messages. In each situation, there was one hold-out, either a male or female. The hold-outs opinion was expressed in a neutral, fear-based, or anger-based manner. Throughout, the subject was asked how “confident” they were in their initial verdict. Researchers found, “Participants’ confidence in their own verdict dropped significantly after male holdouts expressed anger. Participants became significantly more confident in their original verdicts after female holdouts expressed anger, even though they were expressing the exact same opinion and emotion as the male holdout.”

Back to the “relax” example from above. These situations typically arise when a woman is passionately advocating for something (something she strongly believes in), yet that’s when she is told she’s being “too emotional.” One might think that passionately arguing her case would make the message more persuasive – after all, if she doesn’t strongly believe in the veracity of the argument, then she most likely would not be advancing it so strongly. However, the research shows that’s not the case. Instead, because of the perception that women are “too emotional,” her anger is discounted as less real, less true, less persuasive than a man’s anger. For men, anger makes the message more real, more true, more persuasive – after all, if it weren’t true, he wouldn’t be so passionate about it, right?

This double-standard is not only offensive, it has serious ramifications for many facets of a woman’s life. As the researchers summarized, “Our results have implications for any woman who is trying to exert influence on a decision in their workplace and everyday lives, including governing bodies, task forces and committees.”

Since this is a litigation blog, let’s focus on that context. For women litigators, the research suggests that passionate advocacy could actually backfire with a jury since jurors might perceive the case evidence as all fluff, no substance. Jurors could “reason” that if she “had the goods” she wouldn’t need to be “so angry” or “so emotional.” In deliberations, a strong woman on the panel, one who passionately argues for your side, might actually work against you. We discuss all the time about the need to both “arm” (i.e., provide jurors with accessible arguments and evidence to use against others in deliberations) and “motivate” jurors. Motivation comes from giving them a value to fight for, a reason justice is advanced by finding for your client. We say you want jurors who will not give in, but instead continue the fight even in the face of opposition. Perhaps, though, what we really want to to is only motivate the men.

Yes, I’m being facetious with that last statement. If someone were watching me pound out this blog on my computer they might want to tell me to “relax.” I suppose my “anger” (for lack of a better word) about what I knew in my heart to be true, but didn’t want to admit, is that a finding like this bluntly points out the precarious position strong women often find themselves in. Is it better for a woman to “play the game” and politely assert her position, hoping that it’s effective enough to persuade someone to her position? Or is it better to passionately assert her position, educating people along the way that they should not discount her passion as “hysterics” or “a cover-up” for a weak position?

I want to say let’s not kowtow to society’s specious stereotypes, but to do so is not necessarily practical. So, in the meantime, while everyone hopefully becomes used to the idea that women can, in fact, make both aggressive AND valid arguments, we should look for ways in which we can minimize the adverse effects found in the study. Women litigators should seek out feedback from men and women about their presentation style, and look for ways they are unintentionally undermining their efforts through what might be perceived as an “overly emotional” style. Specifically, listen for tone and watch your body language.

During a shadow jury project I worked on, the shadow jurors critiqued one of the female attorneys for many aspects of her behavior. They said things like: “She always seemed so angry.” “Her heels make this loud click, click, click sound on the floor.” “She’d jab the documents at the witness.” “She threw her notebook on the table.” “She’s always scurrying around.” True, men would not likely get this same criticism; however, I recall this particular attorney, and I have to say that I even thought she seemed angry…angry for no real reason. So, again, ask someone for honest feedback. Videotape yourself. You might not like the critique and might not believe it’s fair, but in the end, the goal is to become the most credible speaker you can be.

Regarding jurors, I am not advocating that you eliminate all strong women from your panel. Instead, I believe we go back to something I mentioned earlier – the need to both “arm” and “motivate” jurors for deliberations. If the critique is that “angry” women do not appear to also have “valid” arguments, then the need to “arm” all jurors is even more necessary. Arm both the men and the women on the panel with a simple and clear way to recall and use key evidence, tied specifically to the verdict form questions. The juror who can hold up evidence and refute the baseless (albeit loud) assertions made by an angry woman OR man (a motivated but unarmed juror), will win the day.

I’ll end with a quick critique: While I believe the results of the above study are thought-provoking and, in many ways, confirm what many have long felt to be true, I think we should put an asterisk next to them since the study was conducted using written stimuli instead of in personal interactions. The significance of in-person interactions cannot be underestimated. It would be interesting to conduct similar research where the interpersonal dynamic and non-verbal communication aspects can be studied. The impact of these issues are especially important for deliberations where a juror’s interpersonal skills and nonverbal behaviors can have a profound effect on his or her ability to persuade their fellow jurors.