This is not the season for complaining, and so I won't. But it does seem as though there are more ill-tempered souls around these days - people who act as though they are really sore about something or are carrying around a load of hate - and you have to wonder why.

Driving along an expressway the other day, minding my own business and staying in my own lane, I caught sight in my rear-view mirror of a speed jockey bearing down on me in some flashy red coupe. He had to be doing 80 or 90, I figured. To get out of his way, I quickly signaled and eased over a lane to my right.In an instant, the speed jockey in the red coupe was barreling past me. As the driver swerved to cut in front of me (forcing me to hit the brakes), he glared back at me and delivered a universally known obscene gesture.

This kind of nasty encounter would seem like nothing if it only happened once. But I've recently run into several such episodes, and friends report the same kinds of stories. It isn't only that many people can't drive very well, it's that the highway makes some people meaner than they already are.

Driving a fast car gives one a sense of power, and I suppose lots of drivers find it fun to show off; but this isn't the whole explanation. What accounts for most road rudeness is the anonymous nature of the highway. Hermetically sealed in his aluminum-and-glass cocoon, a driver feels isolated and almost invulnerable. He (for in most cases, but not all, the rude motorist is a male) can scowl, glare, shout and shake his fist at anyone else on the road, and there is no penalty whatsoever.

These are random anger and random insults - and it doesn't matter a bit who the target might be. They involve shouted obscenities and other emblems of modern discourse which, if unleashed in a direct encounter, would cause great shame all around. But in today's anonymous society, where technology and time impose their own peculiar separateness, that which was formerly forbidden has become all but routine.

The telephone has become infamous for this. I received a particularly venomous harangue over the phone not long ago from someone bent on taking issue with something I had written. It was an abnormally splenetic monologue, laden with abuse, some of which was couched in phrases I had never heard before. I was amused as much as set back, but when I dared to ask the caller's identity, he merely spluttered another oath and slammed down the phone.

What, you wonder, is the payoff for these people who let their anger fly behind a shield of anonymity? And what does this kind of uncivil behavior, exaggerated as it seems to be by the one-way privacy afforded by modern life, say about today's society? Yes, hate is old news. But you have to wonder if there is not some current in the current cultural climate that has lowered the threshold of acceptable behavior.

It's easy to observe that a lot of this behavior comes from immaturity, and most people grow out of it. But some of what I'm thinking about involves adults who should know better, and the fact that they blow up (while thinking no one knows who they are) suggests a layer of bitterness just beneath the thin surface of our society.

It may only apply to a small percentage of people, and it may often reflect nothing more than someone who is badly out of sorts. But it also can have a razor's edge when unleashed; and this kind of blunderbuss anger, carrying a message of contempt and rage toward anyone who happens to be in the way, hints at strains in our society that are not pleasant to imagine.