Why Do We “Go Postal?”

(Last Updated On: September 3, 2020)

Why Do We “Go Postal?”

You’ve probably heard this as some kind of weird threat before. That or we’ve heard it used when someone’s kind of lost their minds or had that final straw snap. With the United States Postal Service collapsing in on itself, we’re pretty sure a lot of people are going to be going postal. Whether or not it’s because your chicks are dying, your faith in democracy, or you’re dealing with historically unsafe working conditions (which have only gotten worse with a pandemic), going postal is probably poignantly relevant. But where did the phrase come from; what keeps us going postal?

How Postal Does the Phrase Even Mean?

If you were wondering, going postal means you’re a little more than just peeved off at your coworker not cleaning out the microwave. Also, clean out the microwave.

When you’ve gone postal, you’ve really gone for the next-day-delivery-send. As in you’re delivering someone to the afterlife. We’re not really exaggerating either, while we might use the phrase more casually now, its origins actually are that violent. While the phrase didn’t gain popular traction until the early-mid 1990s, its inspiration was born from events in 1986 or even as early as 1970 (it depends on when you decide people picked it up).

Events that occurred in, you guessed it, the United States Postal Service. There’s even a Wikipedia page for just postal-related killings. Granted there’s a Wikipedia page for everything, but it’s still quite specific.

Workplace homicides between 2006 and 2010 accounted for 11% of all workplace fatalities–around 550 workers per year. Granted, not all of them were postal service related, nor are their motives easily accessible by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Not that that’s a huge fault, it’s quite hard to pin down and sort reasons for homicide into easily placed boxes.

First Uses

One of the first widely known cases of a USPS worker “going postal” took place in 1970–though many credit 1986 as the birth of the phrase. 

In 1970 a postal supervisor was shot by a worker he had sent home for being intoxicated. The larger mass shooting would occur in 1986 in Edmond, Oklahoma. This event would come to be known, aptly, as the Edmond post office shooting. On August 20th, a postal worker shot and killed 14 of their coworkers while injuring another 6. They then committed suicide.

The shooter was a “Relief Carrier,” which broadly meant that they were working odd routes on odd days–none of which were regularly assigned. Without a regular schedule, their already precarious job was set up with little in the way of job security. Some accounts characterize the shooting as being perpetrated by an already unstable and irritable worker snapping, while others report they were well-performing but consistently badgered by their supervisors (who had reprimanded them the previous day, and who were targeted).

There was also 1993, wherein two postal shootings took place on the same day. So with at least 8 killings within the postal service between 1986 and 1993, the American public was quick to pick up on the goings on. Namely, something’s up within the USPS.

After 1986, casual use of the term “going postal” began, though its use was not widely observed. It was picked up by news distributors in 1993, by then high workplace stress in the postal service wasn’t a big secret. 

The 2000’s

By 2000, the USPS’ Postmaster General (then William J. Henderson) had commissioned the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse to check in on the USPS. That report found that postal workers were no more or less likely to harass their coworkers–as well as postal workers being a third as likely to be homicide victims at work.

This prompted the USPS to largely dismiss the term “going postal” (which had largely taken hold in the American lexicon by then) as a myth. 

But the report didn’t end there, with the same report also showing that postal workers were 6 times more likely to feel that their coworkers were a danger to them. As well as feeling that their employer (the USPS) was significantly less likely to take action against violence. Consequently, postal workers felt that they were far more likely to be attacked while at work (either by coworkers or non-coworkers). What’s more, it was found that many workers agreed that their supervisors were likely to provoke violence. 

The Future?

So suffice to say, even if the USPS was not uniquely bad at the time, conditions were… Not great. Also, if the USPS is not an outlier, that should tell us something even more widespread needs to change–not that everything is a-ok. Because things are certainly not a-ok if workplace killings due to stress are acceptable in any capacity.

Given continuing research on the contemporary American workplace, there seem to be many indicators that a lot of things need to change, with more than 50% of workers in 2015 reporting unsafe or otherwise hazardous conditions. There’s also the quite depressing trend of the working poor, wherein (as far back as 2012), full time minimum wage workers could not afford a two-bedroom apartment in any US congressional district. That’s like 12 million workers. 

With 2020’s pandemic also ravaging the workforce, many job market and income stability issues are becoming exacerbated with far reaching consequences. From the dangerous conditions faced by public service workers and a potential eviction crisis once America’s eviction moratorium ends there’s a lot to be worried about. 

Hopefully going postal isn’t one of them.

Delays are one of them, but here are 20 other ways to not get your mail.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.