Differences Between Angry, Hostile, Violent, Abusive Customer Behavior


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So that we are all on the same wavelength, it helps to clarify the terms we are going to use throughout the book. Angry behavior is not always the same as hostile or abusive behavior, and we need to know the difference, since it affects how we deal with people.


Anger refers to an internal state (a feeling) experienced by the person in question. An angry person experiences physiological changes, some invisible and some visible. Here are some important things to note about anger, and angry people.

1. People choose their own emotional states. That is, their feelings of anger, or for that matter, any other feelings, belongs to them. As such, it isn’t your responsibility. What is your responsibility, however, is to ensure that you don’t knowingly or unknowingly do something they choose to take as anger provoking.

2. We need to accept the fact that people get angry. They have a right to be angry. What they do not have a right to do is to take out their anger on you, particularly when you have done nothing to contribute to it.

It is important that you are comfortable with the notion that people get angry. If you spend all your time trying to make people happy, and prevent ALL anger, you are doomed to failure.

Angry Behavior

People express their anger in various ways. Some raise their voices or become more animated. Others turn red. Some glare. Mild expressions of anger are how people express their inner states. We need to be reasonable in terms of what offends us, and allow the angry person some latitude in expressing his or her anger, before we deem the behavior unacceptable.

Why? Simple practicality. We are all human. Anger happens. If we allow ourselves to be offended every time we encounter angry behavior, we are going to be pretty darned miserable, and ineffective in dealing with other people. As you will see, the problem isn’t angry behavior. It’s hostile/abusive behavior.

Hostile/Abusive Behavior

What sets apart hostile/abusive behavior from angry behavior is that hostile/abusive behavior is intended, consciously or unconsciously to have some or all of the following effects:

• put you off balance
• manipulate and control you
• demean you in some way
• cause you to feel guilty
• intimidate you

It is this manipulative behavior that causes the greatest amount of stress for government employees. While we may tolerate some degree of angry behavior without trying to shut the anger down, we definitely need to be concerned about hostile/abusive behaviors. We want to stop these behaviors as professionally as possible. If we can, at the same time, reduce the anger of the client, that’s great. If we can’t, we need to recognize that the anger belongs to the client.

Verbal Abuse

Verbal abuse takes a great many forms, from very subtle, to very obvious. In this book, when we talk about verbal abuse, we refer to behaviors like:

• persistent swearing
• yelling
• sexist comments (both explicit and implied)
• racist comments (both explicit and implied)
• irrelevant personal remarks (e.g. about your appearance)
• threats (e.g. I’ll have you fired, or I’m going to the governor/minister).
• intimidating silence
• accusations of various sorts (e.g.. calling you a racist)
• comments about your competency, knowledge, dedication

These behaviors are intended to demean and control you.

As you go through this workbook, you will learn ways to counter­control in the face of these tactics. Countercontrolling involves getting back your share of influence over the conversation.

Non?Verbal Abuse

Nonverbal abuse refers to behavior that has nothing to do with what is said, and includes body posture, facial expressions, gestures, and interpersonal distance (proxemics).

Let’s make no mistake about it. Nonverbal abuse is intended to send aggressive messages to you, such as “I don’t like you”, or, “I am fed up”, or even “In my eyes you are worth nothing”. When we talk about nonverbal abuse we refer to behaviors such as:

• standing in your personal space
• staring at you (long eye contact)
• table pounding (sometimes)
• throwing things
• leaning over you (using height)
• fearsome facial expressions
• loud sighing
• pointing, other offensive gestures

When you see these behaviors, keep in mind that they do not necessarily reflect the conscious INTENT of the person. It is rare that a customer plans out these “attacks”. However, we classify them as abusive, because they have manipulating effects. Their use usually reflects an underlying (unconscious) attempt to get one’s way without considering the needs of others.


We can define violence as any activity that is intended to cause, or can cause physical harm to another person, be it you, a coworker, or customer. Some actions involving physical contact, such as arm?grabbing or shoulder­ grabbing can be legally interpreted as assault, so we include them in this category, even if they cause no physical harm. Other actions, such as throwing things would be considered violent behavior if there is intent to cause harm or harm was done. However, “acting?out” behaviors, like ripping up papers and throwing them, or sweeping things off a desk are not violent by our definition. Abusive, yes. Hostile, yes.

Just a point or two about physical violence of this sort. Generally, this kind of behavior doesn’t come out of the blue, but is part of a sequence of events that involves verbal abuse. What this means is that by learning to defuse hostility and verbal abuse, you are more likely to reduce the potential for physical violence.

Your first priority is to ensure your own physical safety, and the safety of those around you. For this reason, most organizations will accept that you have a right to remove yourself from a situation, or request backup assistance in situations where you feel physically threatened.

You don’t have to be absolutely sure a physical threat exists. You don’t want to take chances. If your organization takes a different view, show this to your bosses! It’s in everyone’s interest to ensure a safe work environment.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Robert Bacal
Robert began his career as an educator and trainer at the age of twenty (which is over 30 years ago!), as a teaching assistant at Concordia University. Since then he as trained teachers for the college and high school level, taught at several universities and trained thousands of employees and managers in customer service, conflict management and performance appraisal and performance management skills.


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