I spent a day asking people what makes them mad. Their answers were eye-opening.

“Hey, my name is Pen. I’ve been traveling around the Bay Area asking people what makes them mad and what they’re doing to fix it. May I interview you?”

I recited this phrase, or some variation thereof, so many times on Wednesday Nov. 11, 2015, it started to lose meaning. Twelve hours of riding around on public transportation asking the same question to people — and even more time asking it to myself. It reminded me of that one day I said the word "spoon" a million times and ended up thinking: Why in the hell did they call it that in the first place? What does it really mean? What does it all really mean!?!

At one point, I got mad at the question. At another point, I got angry with the premise of the project I was working on.


These are some of the folks I met. All photos by Pen Harshaw, used with permission.

The distance traveled pissed me off. The time it took to conduct the interviews annoyed me. The technology I was using made me frustrated a couple of times. And the people who wouldn’t speak to me — especially those who shut me down before I could fully state the aforementioned phrase — gave me the greatest inspiration to be mad.

This project started out of genuine curiosity. I wanted to know what makes people mad and what could be done to fix it?

Prior to pestering people on public transportation, I posed a question to myself.

I don’t like injustice, police brutality, lack of resources in "third world countries," the term "third world country," student loans — oh man, do I despise those! I don’t like when people put recycling in the trash, I hate prisons, and I’m disgusted by slavery. The line at the DMV perturbs me. Speaking of lines: my receding hairline? I’m not a fan. Oh, and when the toilet seat doesn’t stay up as I’m taking a piss — it makes me want to shake my fist at the sky.

I hate it when people are mean to each other for no reason at all. C’mon, we already have to deal with systems of oppression and glitchy technology, and then you run into a rude person on the subway who just needs to let their anger out on someone — and you happen to be that someone. That’s uncalled for.

These are all things that could make me mad, but I choose not to let them. I’ve read articles about happiness being a choice, and I believe that anger is a choice as well. Instead of getting mad, I get motivated. I choose to take that energy and use it to change the situation. If I can’t change it, I don’t trip.

So, that line at the DMV, the glitchy technology, and that vanishing hairline — I let those be. But the institution of prison, student loans, and the rude person on the train — I fight those with my words.

After gaining this understanding about myself, though, I wanted to know: What makes other people angry? I wanted to travel Bay Area public transportation for 12 hours interviewing people about human concerns and resolutions. I wanted to listen to them.

So that's what I did.

At the end of the daylong experiment, I sat in the Chipotle up the block from the Ferry Building on Market Street in San Francisco, filing my final interviews.

The results:

A 15-year-old African-American boy blew my mind when he said that some black people make him mad — “the ghetto ones.”

A cab driver from Pittsburgh caught me off guard when he candidly let me know that self-medicating was the solution to his anger.

Tom, the cab driver, told me: "I try not to get too mad lately. I try to think positive, stay positive, and have good thoughts. Sometimes I still get mad, but I try not to focus on it. If do get mad, it’s at pain; my body hurts a lot, but it’s getting better."

A 79-year-old French woman waiting at a bus stop in Richmond explained that she lives by herself and doesn’t get mad at herself; hence, she is happy. And I believe her.

And then there was 26-year-old Tommy Cross who explained, on his way to work, that the lack of opportunities for those who need them most is what pisses him off.

Tommy works in education, he told me, where he combats this struggle every day.

In the end, I conducted 28 interviews on the record, and many others off the record.

But the folks I spoke to in person were only part of the story. People all over the world also responded to my initial Medium post with vivid, sometimes emotional, accounts of what makes them mad, from drivers failing to stop for the disabled to the ugly fissures in Silicon Valley.

Some wrote about feeling powerless; others condemned senseless acts of violence. One woman opened up about the danger she faces taking public transportation at night.

There were a lot that I did not see coming: war in Yemen and pigeons in the Mission.

Two teens named Hoods and Jetz told me that pebbles in the street make them mad; they can deal with the unwarranted filming and scooter kids, but the pebbles — there’s nothing they can do about those.

Adyson is 16. What makes him mad? "When they say stuff without thinking and when they want attention! It’s aggravating. It gets me really mad. C’mon man, you’re embarrassing yourself!"

I was humbled by Reese, a 31-year-old musician and audio engineer, who told me that he gets upset when people aren’t chasing their true purpose, their dream — a selfless concern if I’ve ever heard one.

I laughed at the fact that just about every person between the ages of 15 and 32 said they don’t like liars, posers, misconceptions of the truth, or stereotypes.

I laughed because that’s the “digital native” generation — a group that has seen massive amounts of lies and misinformation from individuals and institutions come across their computer screens, phones, and televisions since they were born.

William, age 37, told me that liars made him mad. "Just a bunch of liars  —  lying. I don’t like it."

Being a product of that generation, I understand. When I turned their responses around, asking them if they ever lie or cheat, every single person admitted to the same offenses.

I understand this too. I tell a lie every now and then. I’m not proud of it, but I’m human.

And in the end, that’s what this project brought to light: We’re all human. With human concerns. And human reactions.

While approaching people at random, I noticed something: Most people’s first instinct was to acknowledge the anger caused by the actions of other humans. This was surprising — I had expected people to name some of the bigger, overarching problems facing our society today: income inequality, San Francisco’s tech bubble, police brutality, public transportation, the city’s housing crisis.

But instead, a large majority of folks commented on their relationships, their emotions, and their feelings. More often than not, people told me about being lied to or betrayed by a trusted “friend.” A number of people in customer service roles discussed “how to deal with people.”

There was the woman who didn’t like when people litter.

There was the guy who didn’t like people talking behind his back.

There was Kathy, who gets annoyed by the homeless folks who camp out in her coffee shop:

And Carlos, who gets mad when people ask him where the bathroom is.

The skater kids were mad at the scooter kids; other teens were frustrated by people who don’t listen, people who don’t pay attention, fake people.

The common thread was that we get angry about how people treat people.

People. That’s the root of other people’s anger. So what are people going to do about it? That’s a question for all of us.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels
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