Open Gently

Musings on the introspective life.

How to Stop a Bully

As an upper-level manager, a bystander or a Mom, we all need to stop bullies.

Scene in a New York City subway car: a tall, hefty man squeezes into a seat next to a slight young woman who is hunched over her cell phone.

The man has his butt in the seat but says, "Can't you move over?" in a loud voice. True, there is an empty space on her other side, but the big man's rear is taking up well more than its allotted space.

The woman slides over to the next seat and is now very close to her other neighbor, who is also not small. Mr. Big continues to complain. "Look at you, all focused on your little phone. You can't be bothered to move for me, huh?"

The subways are full of seemingly crazy people. Usually, the young woman would have said nothing or got up and walked as far from the troublemaker as possible. I have done the same myself many times.

This woman talked back. "I did move over. What do you want?" she said, in an irritated but quiet voice.  

"You're so selfish."

This woman stood up and argued back, "So now I have to stand?"

She had taken the bait.

Mr. Big was now on a roll. Roaring, he says, "You're a selfish person. You don't think about anyone but yourself. It's all about you, all the time. I make room for other people. I give them that courtesy. I'm not a selfish little bitch like you."

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Bitch. He had crossed the line. As far as I was concerned, he had crossed the line as soon as he raised his voice.

I was relieved when a middle-aged man sitting nearby now said, "Don't talk to her like that."

"I'll talk to her any way I want to. I can't have an opinion? I can't speak my mind? She's a selfish little bitch, you can see it all over her"

"Don't talk to her like that. I am telling you now to stop," said the man.

Perhaps 50 other people sat in the car within earshot. No one else spoke.

"Who are you to tell me what to do about that fucking bitch?!"  

According to Jennifer Hancock, author of The Bully Vaccine, bystanders need to speak up. That means kids in a schoolyard, employees who do not report to a bullying boss, and people on a train. 

To quote Hancock, "It doesn’t take a lot of people to stop a bully. It only takes one or two dedicated individuals in each group."

As a society, we can fight bullying where it starts, among kids. "Bullying is a learned behavior. If kids learn that bullying works in school, they will continue to bully in the workplace. If they learn it doesn’t work, they will carry that lesson to the workplace as well. The choice is ours as a society," she says. 

"If you see something, say something" is plastered on signs all over New York City, meant to tell us to report stray parcels that might contain bombs. But the same message should apply to bullying. 

If you see something, say something. 

Bullying is everywhere, not just in schoolyards or on the Internet. 

According to research by the Workplace Bullying Institute, in a 2010 survey, 9% of working Americans said they were currently being bullied on the job, another 26% said they had been bullied and 15% had been witnesses. That comes to half of the working population.  Bullying was defined as "as "repeated mistreatment: sabotage by others that prevented work from getting done, verbal abuse, threatening conduct, intimidation, and humiliation." 

Hancock reports that most of the time, victims of bullying end up having to leave their jobs or being demoted. The bullies win. 

That's my experience, too. I've had three bosses who bullied me. My very first boss, the editor of a small magazine, was a famous bully. Whenever I spoke to a former staffer or freelance writer, they'd drop their voices and say "How are you holding up?"

Me: "Well, the other day he told me I wasn't as stupid as I looked."

Sympathetic Writer or Former Staffer: "Oh that's terrible. I wish he wouldn't talk like that."

Me: "Every night when I'm about to leave he starts a long conversation and I have to listen to him and I end up not being able to leave until 10 or so and then the next day he'll say I'm clogging up the work flow and need to stay later."

SW: "So unfair. Yeah, he loves to talk late at night. I think he just doesn't want to go home to his wife and kids."

Me: "My hair got wet in the rain and he said "Wet hair is inappropriate in the office. Didn't your mother teach you how to hold an umbrella?""    

SW: Arghh

Me: "Would you mind saying something to him?"

SW: "Oh, it won't do any good. I'm really sorry this is happenning. Feel free to talk to me anytime. Gotta go now."

After having similar conversations with several sympathetic bystanders, I understood that no one would help me. I quit. 

The next time it happenned, at another job, I complained to the bully's boss. She said she'd "speak to him."  He was better for about two weeks and then began collapsing into rages again. 

I complained about him. He complained about me. The bully's boss began the process of firing me.

The third time, I talked to lawyers. Enough said. 

Back on the subway car, a lone civic citizen challenged the bully for a minute or two. Things were escalating. The subway car came to a stop. My stop. I was getting off, and assumed the man wouldn't think fast enough to follow me, and heard myself holler, "You are sitting in two seats."

Then I ran off the train.    

 

 

   

Temma Ehrenfeld is a New York-based science writer, and former assistant editor at Newsweek.

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