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When a jerk crosses your path, take the high road

You walk out of the house, and you find that your garage has been spray-painted by a vandal.

You see a guy toss a bag of trash out his car window.

Your lawn is a minefield because somebody doesn't clean up after their dog These random acts of jerkiness -- by people we don't know, people who don't know us -- make us angry. It's now our burden to make things right, to clean up after the inconsiderate slob, maybe even spend time and/or money -- just make us angrier.

But what is the alternative? How do we put away the anger and learn to just shake off such actions?

The reason we get upset, says James Gross, is because that paint-spraying, trash-tossing, poop-leaving twit has disrupted the order of our lives. We have a goal -- we're headed to the office, let's say, and the driver ahead of us is moping along, weaving from lane to lane -- and we are prevented from achieving it.

Gross, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and an expert in emotion regulation, says that, typically, the jerk isn't trying to mess with your mind.

"Maybe they're distracted, they have too much to do, they made a mistake," Gross says. "The reason we get angry is we imagine they're trying to interfere with our goal."

He suggests recognizing our anger, then taking the high road.

"When we're angry we lash out, we say things we shouldn't," he says. "It's important to pay attention to your responses, and suddenly you're less likely to be a jerk yourself."

That idea is echoed by Jim Fannin, a mental performance coach who has worked with professional athletes and business and civic leaders over his 30-year career.

"You need to go to a higher ground, a higher viewpoint of the world and life," he says.

"If you can walk around with that -- you're not being above everybody else, it's not that -- but understand there are so many people today who have serious issues, and you really don't know what's going on in someone's mind," Fannin adds. "It's their problem and you can't take it on as your burden.

"[If you do] you've lost control. When you let another person increase your blood pressure, basically you're giving them permission to bother you."

But ignoring them may be easier said than done.

Gross says that when people have been victimized, they take it as a direct slap, and anger is automatic. But by controlling that emotion, a person can steer the situation in another direction.

Fannin ( has his clients employ what he calls the 90-second rule: After being the victim of a jerk, he suggests, roll your eyes, exhale, maybe judge that person a little.

But then, do nothing. Be silent, control your breathing to six to eight breaths a minute, and let it go.

"You can't dwell on it," he says. "When you replay the past more than twice you are in a negative situation. Learn from the past, bury it in the backyard, and don't dig it up."

Confronting the guilty party has benefits if done properly. Do it wrong and things could get ugly. Fannin says that challenging a stranger carries too many dangers. "It's not worth it," he says. "The champion moves on. He doesn't let people take him to their level."

But Gross believes we shouldn't always silence our anger.

Expressing it verbally, not physically, can be helpful. You are using an emotion to change a situation.

But be careful.

"What we're trying to avoid is two things," he explains. "First, getting angry at the wrong people: the mom with three screaming kids in the car who is weaving from lane to lane. That makes you angry and no one benefits.

"The other thing is when people get angry and stay angry. They not only blame somebody, they can't let it go."

Of course, going nose-to-nose with a jerk might not do any good anyway.

"People don't change that easily." says Flora Lichtman, the multimedia editor for National Public Radio's "Science Friday" and co-author of "Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us" (Wiley). "It's hard to get people to change their behavior, as a stranger. I haven't had much success, even with my close friends."