Why Is Chicago So Angry?

Road rage, sidewalk rage, bathroom rage. Whatever happened to those courteous Midwestern manners?

Illustration by Kyle Webster

Illustration: Kyle Webster

The other day, while taking the World’s Dumbest Dog for a walk in Andersonville, I paused as she nestled into a cozy spot on a neighbor’s lawn to do the one thing at which she’s particularly skilled. The big lug has never been much of a trailblazer, and the patch she picked was already a minefield of other pooches’ deposits. When the deed was done, I bagged my dog’s output, dropped it into a nearby dumpster, and continued on my way.

“Hey!” the neighbor called behind me. “You gonna pick up after your dog?”

I immediately shifted into attack mode, declaring with outsize indignation that I had done my duty. Soon we were screaming at each other about silly things that two grown men probably ought to be far beyond. The dog just looked embarrassed.

The sudden hate between my neighbor and me, strangers a minute earlier, was real and visceral, and it multiplied with his realization that I was not a garden-variety poo leaver but rather a sociopath petty enough to actively choose which excreta to pick up and which to leave. Neither of us backed down, but no one was willing to commit to a fistfight, so we went our separate ways.

As you read this, similar situations are exploding in every nook and cranny of Chicago. In movie theatres, buses, and ATM lines, strangers fight over ridiculous situations, taking it personally and sprinting toward conflict where they once avoided it. I’m not talking about gun violence, which is a whole other column, but rather the inane everyday confrontations between people that elevate minor inconveniences into massive arguments. We’re bursting with road rage and sidewalk rage and bathroom rage and every other kind of rage.

Why so angry, Chicago?

We can kid ourselves that we’re the same courteous Midwesterners who wait our turn and hold the door open for each other, but something has changed. Oh, we’ll still hold the door open. But too many among us now expect a thank-you, and if we don’t get one, we might slam the door in your face. We’re angry at corporations, politicians, God, the CTA, you name it, but we have no access to them, so we take it out on each other.

I recently asked dozens of acquaintances: Have you experienced random moments of urban rage? Story after story emerged involving senseless hair-trigger attacks. Middle fingers. Spitting. Dark threats. The most personal insults you can imagine. Many of my responders were victims; others were perpetrators. One friend reported that he had so insulted a man in the car beside him by speeding past that the man caught up and hurled a chicken at my friend’s windshield. A whole, feathered, dead chicken. How angry do you have to be to throw a chicken at someone?

Another friend recounted the time he was trying to walk across a street at a four-way intersection, only to watch car after car run the stop sign. When he finally walked in front of a moving vehicle, the driver slammed on his brakes, blared his horn, and screamed, “It’s a funeral, asshole!”

That many of these incidents occur on the road comes as no surprise. According to the Department of Transportation, road rage incidents are up 170 percent since 2007; more than 1,000 deaths have been attributed to road rage in that time. We’ve all read about the phenomenon’s pathology, how cars are an extension of the self, how they embolden us with their illusion of anonymity, or how they represent our freedom and we react primitively when that freedom is threatened. Or maybe we’re just bigger jerks than we used to be.

“It’s been a staple throughout history that people think society has become ruder,” says Stephen Dinwiddie, a forensic psychiatrist at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “Certainly in a city there are more chances for people to bump up against one another and to misread social signs. But it’s also possible that social norms have changed over time and people no longer agree on what’s appropriate.”

Some individuals, Dinwiddie says, are wired for impulsive behavior and simply cannot restrain themselves. Studies have shown that up to 7 percent of the population suffers from something called intermittent explosive disorder, a mental condition in which patients periodically lose control and respond to tension with substantially out-of-proportion behavior.

I wonder if I am among that 7 percent. My mild disposition boils into a Hulk-like rage with little warning, often at the slightest provocation from strangers. It’s probably a good thing I happen to have the backbone of a bag of marshmallows and take out my frustrations on innocent inanimate objects. I once chased down a cab that had barreled through a red light into a busy crosswalk, sending pedestrians—including my daughter—diving in various directions. I punched the driver’s window, and the window won. Rock bottom came during an extended public battle with the smug owner of a Wi-Fi café over whether I should be allowed to put my feet on a chair. I surprised myself by arguing the most unreasonable of positions; I was less surprised when the dude threw me out and I punted the chair.

Every anger management quiz tells me the same thing: I am prone to anger problems. The website Psychology Today was particularly condescending, reminding me, “Some things just aren’t worth getting worked up about!” That only pissed me off.

Here is where I’m supposed to plead for sanity and relay a random act of kindness that gives me hope for us all. I’m obviously not the person to do that.

Dinwiddie says the first step in dealing with an anger problem is to figure out what is driving it. Whether I’m an aberration or the norm, a monster or a tired urban stereotype, I’m working on that. Until then, I’ll walk my dog on a different block.

Experienced an ugly automotive episode lately? Tell your story in the comments section below.


8 months ago
Posted by staceyb

I drop my fiance off downtown everyday for work. Every single day pedestrians walking down Michigan think that they can cross Superior when the red hand is telling them not to and I'm trying to turn left off of Michigan. I finally decided to yell at these people by saying "stop" and "hand," while honking and throwing my hand up demonstrating the stop sign, but probably ended up looking like I was making a 1990's reference to "talk to the hand." They looked frightened by my crazy gesturing, but they got out of my way.

I moved here not even a year ago from Denver and I have never in my life experienced the amount of road rage that I do now.

8 months ago
Posted by airsick737

Why do the cab drivers have to putter along in the left lane of the expressways? I go to the airport once or twice a week, and there they are, driving slowly in the left lane, aggravating those of us who were properly trained to use the left lanes as passing lanes and speed lanes. I swear to God, when I get on the freeway, I just want to drive with my middle finger waving in the air the entire way!!!

8 months ago
Posted by MikeC

About a month ago, I was walking my dog and it sniffed at this guy as he walked past (just so you can picture it he looked like Stanley from the office, grumpy face and all). He immediately stopped and threatened "You better get your dog off of me, or else." (My dog is a cute 30 lb beagle mix...hardly scary or threatening). I was so shocked by the nastiness of his tone and comment, that I responded aggressively as well. If he would've been more civil, I would've said I'm sorry and been on my way, but I said something like, "my dog sniffed at you, it hardly jumped on you" in a manner like, what the f*** are you talking about? This escalated quickly into a loud back and forth, and ended with me ridiculing him for being a grown ass man that's afraid of dogs.

It most likely ruined both of our mornings and was totally unnecessary. I'm not proud of the way I handled it, but he did threaten to harm both my dog and me...

I at least learned a valuable lesson that even though my dog is awesome, some people don't like them, so I make more of an effort to keep her away from passerby's.

In conclusion, I totally agree with your article.

8 months ago
Posted by FromTheDtoC

I could tell stories from many perspectives; driver, pedestrian, cyclist, cab rider, etc, but the one that irks me the most are the drivers who turn right in front of pedestrians close enough to hit them. It happens at all sorts of corners and intersections. One time a huge SUV got so close to me I slapped my hand on his car. He got a pissy and tried to tell me I could damage his car. I'm a petite 5'2" and unlikely to hurt anything with my little hands. In an ironic twist, an acquaintance started telling me how obnoxious someone was when she saw them do the same thing. (I didn't share my story with her, needless to say...)

My take on the whole thing is this: people have become increasingly inconsiderate about their neighbor. We don't care about inconveniencing one another as long as we get what we want within our comfort zone. Patience is no longer a virtue; efficiency and expediency are. Who doesn't celebrate getting to O'Hare from downtown in 20 minutes?

8 months ago
Posted by cam

Sounds like two mixed up issues here: dogs and cars.

Re dogs, you really don't have my sympathy. Don't get me wrong--you did sound like a reasonably considerate dog owner in that you did clean up after your pet--but as a gardener and homeowner, I am becoming increasingly impatient with the arrogance or thoughtlessness of dog owners. To put it bluntly, no, I really do NOT want your pet using my garden as its toilet. You mentioned that your dog pooped on your neighbor's lawn. I, like him I imagine, mow my lawn, weed it, walk on it, and in some areas, grow flowers on it. Nope, don't want dog poo there, sorry.

As for cars, we have a situation where there are far more on the road on any given day than in the past. I've noticed this summer a sharp uptick in pushy, aggressive driving behavior, and most of that I've seen in the 'burbs. I can only imagine what the city must be like at times...

America only a scant half century or so ago was largely a rural nation. Hard to believe. So we are in the middle of a huge transition to an overwhelmingly urban lifestyle for most of us, and there will be rough moments.

Perhaps in another half century or so people will have calmed down...??

8 months ago
Posted by KJR

You can get to O'Hare from downtown in 20 minutes?

The problem is the person who escalates. Anything can be a simple misunderstanding, and if the wronged party just takes it in stride, accepts a "sorry, man" from the perpetrator, we can all be along our way. If someone needlessly escalates however, all bets are off.

8 months ago
Posted by willyoumarrym3

I moved from Hawai'i about a year ago and had higher expectations from the people of the midwest. I anticipated punctual, respectful, and not outwardly rude. However, I feel the people just migrated into the city, along with his or her closed-mindedness, ignorance, and entitled attitude. What is worse, the many people I meet are not only mean, but lack the ability to critical-think.

At least in Hawai'i, many people are ignorant, but not mean about it.

Many waiters/waitresses are unable to do his or her job correctly, even though the restaurant is running slow. They miss a step and do below minimum.

I was volunteering for low-income people and the person in charge asked to look at my ID:

Man: Valdez...so you speak then Spanish, right? (saying matter-of-factly)
Me: Um..no, I am Filipino.
Man: Oh so you speak Tagalog.
Me: Um... no, I SPEAK JAPANESE!!!
Man: Oh.
Me: Yea.. (in a sassy voice)

Then I snatched my ID. Moron!

8 months ago
Posted by cavandy

FIrst, the parkways in the city of Chicago (that space between the sidewalk and the street) are not privately owned by ANYONE. They are public lands and though we, as homeowners, take care of the parkways in front of our houses with pretty flowers, lawns, stones, and other fancy stuff, they are not actually our property. So if your dog is doing his business on the parkway, you can tell any homeowner to suck it, including me.

I am a dog owner and I feel for you. My baby and I walk the park and our neighborhood (DePaul) and I always pick up after her. Do I still get the side-eye or an old crank yelling at me now and then to pick up something I've every intention of doing? Yes. I just laugh, or tell them to settle down.

RE: driving, there are too many rage incidents for me to mention, both from my side (passing the trolling cab on the right perhaps?) or the jerkface Maserati driver yelling at me to take off my ski cap because I was too old to wear it (and I didn't let him cut me off -- the nerve!). But I have been traveling and I really don't think we are any worse than any other city. Not that that's anything to be proud of, but it is totally true that the whole world has just gotten a little bit crankier to each other.

8 months ago
Posted by wickerparker

The reason I have become more strident in my dealings with others is that even when they are clearly in the wrong, they are likely to respond angrily, stupidly, childishly etc, thereby escalating the exchange immediately. Instead of just saying "I'm sorry", they are more than willing to change the subject, go on some form of personal attack, or anything else rather than take responsibility for the stupid thing they just did. So let me vent a bit with a few recent examples.

Saw a guy toss a soiled baby diaper on the sidewalk on Milwaukee avenue. When we called him out on it, he screamed that we were yuppie scum that just moved in the hood. What that had to do with anything I dont know. I have lived here for 20+ years. He just wouldn't admit that he did something wrong.

I have had people blocking the entrance to my garage which is on private property. When I tell them they need to move their vehicles, they often gut huffy and then say they'll only be another 20 minutes. WTF? It doesnt matter how long you will be, it matters that you are trespassing. Simple "i'm sorry, I will move" is all the response that is needed. Anything else will escalate the situation.

some comments on the comments:

If you are standing on the sidewalk, and not in the street, a right turning vehicle should have no trouble. If you are crossing the street in the direction of traffic, the driver is making an illegal turn with pedestrians in the x-walk. My guess is that you were standing in the street. See it happen all the time. People looking to see where the next bus is at, standing 2-3 feet into the street, making any right hand turn nearly impossible.

being a good person and dropping your dog's shit into someone else's trash is not being nice. I dont want your dog shit or the flies, rats it brings. and especially not in the recyclable container. Take it home with you.

and yes legally the parkways are not private property. but please people, have some respect for the time, labor and money that goes into keeping those areas nice. It makes the whole neighborhood a better place. screaming that your precious mutt has an inalienable right to ruin the efforts of your neighbors is just selfish. Dog urine is not good for plants.. simple. If someone has taken the time and effort to do some "landscaping" in the greenway, the least you can do is respect that work by not allowing your dogs to use it as a dog run. There are places set aside for that

Much of the problem seems to stem from an increase in simple selfishness. What works for me, right now is good, even if it inconveniences, or wreaks havoc on someone else. The lack of empathy is the root cause of these conflicts.

8 months ago
Posted by LIsa from Beverly

If you have such contempt for your dog why don't you give it to a good no kill shelter?

He or she must feel the hatred and that is no way for anything to live.

You know, if what you say is true, anxiety can make you do dumb things and your negative feelings are affecting your dogs behavior.

8 months ago
Posted by cavandy

Wickerparker, you really seem to be very agitated with city living. I don't know what else to say but if you can't handle citizens putting garbage in your (actually, the city's) garbage can, this is a new level of intolerance.

And the parkways? Speaking as someone who has both a dog that walks the neighborhood and a person who tends very much to her front garden (with time, money etc), even the public parkways, I would never in a million years yell at someone for letting their dog go on our "lawn" as long as they clean up after it. Yes, I do make the neighborhood a "better place" with my landscaping, but I am not an ogre and not going to shoo people from using what is not mine. And I think dogs make our neighborhood a better place, as much or more than cranky neighbors with overly-landscaped yards.

I'm guessing, though, that you have a very large iron fence around your landscaping. Problem solved.

6 months ago
Posted by ogChi

Someone just went in on WickerParker, who had the most well-reasoned, even-handed response, and panted it as outrageous. Cavandy ignored both the content and the context of wickerparker's post in order to paint wickerparker as a supporter of screaming and took WickerParker to task for defending a behavior which, if you'll notice, wickerparker never condoned. I suspect it's because cavandy took something in wickerparker's post personally and just went to town. It does appear cavandy missed WickerParker saying that they are in the exact same boat. Twice.

And that is the crux: taking neutral behavior personally, sometimes recharacterizing the neutral behavior as rude or absurd, sometimes to the point of ignoring or altering one's perception of reality until they make an attack couched as a counter-attack.

As the most aggressive form of Midwestern 'Mericans, Chicagoans tend to deny extra special hard that everything they do is anything but "normal" at ALL times, even though culturally speaking, it can be an incredibly uneven. Chicago is a place with a LOT people who have a lot of different imaginary codes for behavior, but are unaware of real ones, and many people who have very low awareness of commonalities & differences in behavioral norms across cultures. Still, with this particular self-concept comes a certain level of belligerent entitlement toward the behavior of others that I've never seen anywhere else.
Driving faster than someone else is not actually rude. Anywhere. So it doesnt ever really warrant dead chicken-throwing, which however, I'm pretty sure is meant as an insult in every culture. And no, no one is supposed to throw poo in ANY open waste container not designated for poo. General American City rules. It's actually a thing. On signs. Posted by cities. And escalators. Pretty much every country that has escalators in public transit has the same rules. Same. Rules.

But take a look around Chicago. Listen to people's personal or local preferences elevated to the level of absolute morality and the subsequent name-calling, brawling, and onslaught of random nastiness that would be considered passive-aggressive if only the aggressor didn't make it so obvious how far out of their way they had to go in order to pull it off. That's Chicago.

Submit your comment