A colleague recently filed a complaint against her supervisor, accusing her of bullying. When the subordinate described to me the behavior of her manager that she classified as “bullying,” I was surprised. That’s not bullying, I thought. It might be insensitive, or rude, or condescending, but it’s not bullying. What are the elements that need to be in place for behavior to qualify as bullying?
A traditional definition of bullying requires that an imbalance of power exists, so that intimidation can occur, either from the classic larger boy who hassles a younger, smaller child, or from a supervisor who gets away with mistreating his employees because their livelihood is in his hands. The standard definition of bullying also requires that a pattern of behavior is established, that it is repeated and happens frequently. In my view, there is often an element of public humiliation involved, such as when the middle-school bully attacks to the great glee of his minions. And attack is frequently physical, or at least contains the threat of physical violence. Synonyms of the verb “to bully” are persecute, oppress, tyrannize, browbeat, harass, torment, intimidate, strong-arm, dominate.
In other words, bullying is a big deal. It’s vicious and frightening. It’s not just telling someone she made a mistake in not a very nice way. There are other words for that, but bullying isn’t one. Victims of bullying are cowed and scared. They feel powerless to fight back and often won’t tell someone who could help them because they fear that the bullying will get worse. This vicious circle is why bullying sometimes culminates in heartbreaking tragedies. Victims of real bullying deserve all our sympathy, but it appears that the focus on this social problem has resulted in the term being thrown around lightly.
Take for example the story of Jennifer Livingston, an overweight news anchor who received an email from a viewer, scolding her for setting a poor health example and recommending that she lose weight. The news anchor fought back, reading the email aloud on the air, and then tearfully explaining how hurtful and unhelpful it was. She accused the email writer of being a bully and that she wanted to raise awareness of bullying behavior, which “is passed down from people like the man who wrote me that email.” She thanked her supporters for “taking a stand against this bully.”
As a result of her striking back, the email writer was thrust into a media spotlight and roundly criticized for his email. He apologized and said that he didn’t intend to offend her, but—and here’s the key bit—he pointed out that he was “in no position to bully her. She’s a big media personality; I’m just a working stiff.” Indeed, when we check back on our definition of bullying, what he did, regardless of our opinion about it, was not bullying.
Yet, look how effective it was to accuse him of bullying. Wow, that really brought out the knives, didn’t it? As a “big media personality,” Jennifer knew her audience and knew how to use words that would bring people to her defense. A few people mentioned that publicizing his name and calling him out on television could be considered a version of bullying, but most people applauded her revenge. I tend to agree with one commentator on the story who mourned, “Why have we become so mean?” but is what he did bullying? No.
As a side note, Jennifer’s husband published the letter on Facebook, saying that it made him “sick to [his] stomach.” He also accused the email writer of being an attorney (he’s not; he’s a security guard), a dastardly enough accusation, in some circles. Jennifer did him one far better when she pulled out the b-word.
Using loaded words is an effective way to stimulate a mob. A quick look back in history demonstrates this point. During one particularly bizarre moment in our country’s past, being simply accused of being a witch, even if the accusation came from a child, was enough evidence to land you in some serious hot water, if not hanged until dead. During a sixteen-month period in the late 1600’s, people in the region around Salem, Massachusetts basically lost their minds. Although townsfolk had been fighting amongst themselves for years, when young girls began accusing unpopular citizens of witchcraft, everyone jumped on the bandwagon and began hanging people left and right. The first to be accused were a homeless woman, a dark-skinned slave, and a woman whom the Puritans disapproved of because she had been married twice and rarely attended church. Next, a woman who questioned the validity of the girls’ accusations was accused, and suddenly fingers were pointing everywhere. Over 140 people were arrested; one man who objected to his wife’s arrest was also arrested. Many of those who were arrested confessed and began naming accomplices. Accusers became accused. It was madness, an early example of mass hysteria. Two dogs were accused of witchcraft and shot and killed. Someof the accused died in prison, but for the rest, juries were convened and “examinations” during the infamous Salem witch trials followed. Some pregnant women were let off, and ten people escaped, but twenty people were executed, nineteen by hanging, and one guy, 81 years old, was pressed to death by large stones.Deemed unworthy of a proper burial, the bodies of the so-called witches were cut down from the hanging trees and thrown in a shallow grave. When the appropriate seeds have been sown, when societal rage has reached a tipping point, name-calling can absolutely work to eliminate an enemy.
Let’s go back to my colleague. After her complaint was filed, a few rumors flew about her manager’s “bullying.” Then—crickets. No formal investigation, no discussion, no intervention, nothing. An HR employee mentioned perhaps involving a mediator, but that didn’t happen. It was as though using the bully word completely stymied any normal reaction. The manager was told to back off, and that was it. That bothered me more than if there had been an uproar, as there was against Jennifer’s email writer. At least he got the chance to defend himself. It appears as though the quickest way to turn your boss into a pariah is to call him or her a bully.
According to The BULLY Project, 13 million kids will be bullied in the U.S. this year, making it “the most common form of violence experienced by young people in the nation.” That’s a lot of kids. Bullying is a real problem and horrifying for its victims. The stories of bullied kids, some of whom are permanently damaged or seek refuge in suicide, are heart-rending. But let’s be careful that accusations of bullying are not simply accepted as true, and that those who are accused are not automatically assumed guilty, particularly when the accusations come from grown adults.
© 2016 Jennifer K. Crittenden