Being bullied kills your confidence and eats your soul. It can have long lasting consequences for those who have been caught in its dastardly jaws - the person who won't wear sandals because someone made fun of their toes when they were young; the employee who can't hear constructive criticism without hearing "you're bad at your job". The person that flinches whenever someone raises their voice, or avoids their favourite lunch spot because they might bump into the wrong person there. Bullying is insidious and vile and its affects can linger for years. It needs to stop.
Most of us have experienced being bullied. Studies suggest that between one in five and one in three New Zealand workers report bullying or harassment each year. Moreover, one in ten workers feel discriminated against at work. Many of us have also experienced being a bystander when someone else is being bullied, and we don't call it out because we're too scared, we don't want to 'rock the boat', or we're too distracted by our own stuff to take a stand. When bullying comes up in conversation, most people have a story about a time they were a victim. And that's really sad.
It's easy to agree that bullying sucks. That's why so many of us are willing participants in virtue-signally campaigns like Pink Shirt Day that seek to take a stand against bullying. We talk loudly about the bullies we've known, as well as the things that need to be done to stop the problem. I was reading someone's Facebook rant about it recently, packed to the brim of All The Statements about how bad bullying is. I looked at someone else's photo of them and their kids wearing pink t-shirts emblazoned with anti-bullying slogans. I read a third statement from a woman about how we need to UNITE!!! to stop the BULLIES!!!
Here's the thing, though. The woman who wanted to UNITE? Her "funny" acerbic takedowns over the years have reduced more than one person to tears. The lady with her kids in matching pink t-shirts once posted a terrible photo on social media of someone in a vulnerable position - something which invited others to laugh at this poor third party. It was viciously unkind; I can't think back on it without feeling shame for not having called it out. And the woman with the Facebook rant? Well. She bullied me. Not that she'd see that, of course. She's far too busy standing up to bullies to be one herself.
Of course, not all people are bullies. But ask yourself these questions before you can be totally sure you're not one yourself.
One: When I make jokes about other people and things, do I punch up or down?
It's the golden rule of comedy. Think of the people around you and in the world as being in a line. Where they sit depends on how much power they have. Then, imagine yourself on that line. If you don't want to be an accidental bully, it's better not to make jokes about anyone with less power than you. That includes having the power to make other people laugh at their expense. Some people don't mind and think it's funny. Some people, though, feel bullied - and sometimes they're right.
Two: Do I find this other person deeply annoying? Do I wish they would talk less? Do I secretly think they're underqualified for their job?
If you feel this way, there is a realistic possibility that those feelings seep from your pores without you realising it. Most of us can smell disrespect from a mile off. If you find Jerry from accounts a complete moron with an annoying voice, be super careful Especially if you have more power than him and he is more junior than you. Unless you have complete mastery of your emotions and/or an excellent Poker face, Jerry probably knows you feel that way. He can see you suppressing an eye-roll or an exasperated sigh while he's speaking. He knows he's the only person you don't ask about the weekend, and how - when you do finally ask - you barely listen to the answer. When poor Jerry gets the work dreads on a Sunday evening, there's a chance it's because he doesn't want to see you, because you make him feel horrible.
Three: When I am stressed or anxious, am I short with the people around me?
We all have the odd day when it feels like the universe is conspiring to make things as hard as possible. We all get stressed sometimes.
If it's a regular occurrence, though, bad stress management is poison for teams, especially when directed at people more junior than yourself. Being snapped at can be a terrible feeling, especially when the person being snapped at is not feeling very resilient. You might think 'I'm just telling it how it is' or 'this is how I am.' Yeah, nah. Your feelings of panic and overwhelm are infecting those around you like a virus. They are also sending your values and integrity to Timbuktu, because you're in animal brain and people in animal brain are more likely to lose their cool and lash out. Don't be that person. At best, that person is a tosser. At worst, they're a bully.
Four: Am I working in a toxic environment?
Toxic environments are a breeding ground for bullying. Why? Because one of two things often happens in this situation. The first one is an 'in the trenches' mentality that binds you to those around you in manner of an invisible (and less gross) blood oath. The other? Survival of the fittest. Dog eats dog. A situation where someone's failure is your success. We don't enter these situations expecting to be a bully. We don't wake up in the morning and think 'I'm going to make Maude cry today'. But we do, sometimes, find ourselves in situations where we go into self-preservation mode, and these are the situations in which we need to be especially careful about how we treat those around us. It's easy to lose perspective when you're spending most of your waking hours in a toxic environment. It's also far too easy to become a bully.
I think this was what happened with the woman that bullied me. She's not a bad person. She's really not. We were just in a terrible environment, as she did what she needed to do to survive. At my expense. .
Five: Am I unhappy? Am I scared I'm going to be 'found out?' Am I desperate to impress? Is my job really important to me?
Insecurity, unhappiness and ambition are the trifecta of bullying. They are, I believe, the perfect ingredients for a bully cake. When something becomes too important and you become too ambitious, you can lose perspective. Once that perspective is lost, your values can erode, simply because your ambition clouds out your courage. Add a dose of unhappiness and imposter syndrome to that mix, and - boom! The cake is in the oven and it tastes like crap. These things together can be a slippery slope to putting other people down to big yourself up. Especially if you're tired and low and the people around you are really pissing you off at present. Pissed off people have less empathy. People with less empathy - even with a lapse in empathy that would be fixed by a big sleep or a holiday - are more likely to be bullies.
Six: Am I focused on achieving my goal at any cost?
Unless you can make a certain peace with the chance your ambitions won't be achieved, you are a prime candidate for turning into a bit of a bulldozer. Achieving our goals is ace. Doing so by bulldozing over other people is not. Success is ace. Short term success that is only achieved by being a dick to other people is not.
Seven: Am I an evil sociopath?
What, wait? You are. Well that's easy, then.
Indeed, bullying - especially workplace bullying - is horrible. It needs to stop. But until we stop making vague statements about stamping it out and start being more upfront about what the behaviour looks like in practice, no virtue-signaling in the world will help it stop.
We need to better understand the triggers and the sort of environments that cause bullies to thrive. Including the accidental bullies - people who nod vigorously about times they've been bullied themselves, but are oblivious to the times they're on the wrong side of the ledger. We need to understand that having been bullied ourselves doesn't mean that we'll never be the bully. We need to acknowledge that just because treating people like shit is inconsistent with our moral code doesn't mean it might still happen.
We need to stop being complicit in making bully cake.
And sometimes that involves looking in the mirror.