Shawn T. Smith Psy.D.

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The Most Important Thing to Know about Bullies

Why predators prefer to minimize risk.

Posted Oct 30, 2014

WIth bullies, a timely response is more important than a perfect response. Mary's story, below, is testament to that.

Before we get to her story, let's define terms. Lots of aggressive behavior gets lumped under the heading of “bullying” these days, but I see it as systematic aggression for fun and profit at the expense of others. People can be rude or hostile without being bullies. True bullying is predatory in nature.

Human predators behave similarly to predators in the animal world. A lion doesn’t blindly jump out of a bush at the first passerby. That would be too risky—what if that passerby knows how to take care of himself?

Instead, animal and human predators alike size up their prey, searching for vulnerability to exploit. They approach their target in ever-narrowing circles, constantly assessing defenses. Human bullies often test their target’s defenses with social transgressions, insults, and well-calculated hostility. That’s what happened to my friend, Mary.

Mary worked in Capitol Hill, a busy downtown section of Denver. At lunch she would sometimes drive to her favorite market for lunch. Parking in this area of town was a challenge, particularly during the midday rush.

The market faced a busy avenue. On the day in question she spied an open space on the street, close to the store. She was not skilled with or enthusiastic about parallel parking—especially on a busy street—but she was willing to give it a try. She turned on her blinker to indicate her intentions, pulled one car length ahead of the space, and put her car in reverse.

Her first attempt was a miserable failure. Forgetting to reverse the steering wheel in time, she hit the curb hard, nearly striking an innocent parking meter. She pulled out and tried again. Her second attempt was no better, although she did manage to miss the curb this time—by many feet. That’s when a stranger appeared. We’ll call him Hank.

Hank had been standing on the curb from the beginning, watching Mary struggle. He now offered help by standing within sight of her rearview mirror and offering direction. With large, flailing motions he guided her, first right and then left, frantically shouting directions: “Turn hard! Turn hard! Now cut it! Cut it!” 

His instructions were of no help. Mary began to think that his guidance was a disservice. After a couple of failed attempts, Hank moved to the passenger side of the car and signaled her to roll down the window so he could speak to her directly. Mary obliged.

She made another attempt with Hank aggressively shouting instructions through the open passenger-side window. Still no luck. Finally, he grew impatient. He leaned in through the window, extending his open hand, and said, “Women can’t park. Give me the keys and let me do it.” 

The predator’s first step in finding a victim is the search for vulnerability. To bullies and predators, our insecurities are opportunities, and Mary’s Achilles heel that day was parallel parking.

Hank, seeing her struggles, seems to have wasted no time in seizing upon that insecurity. He assumed a position of authority. He inflamed her insecurity by giving her wild, sloppy instructions, thereby ensuring her failure. And he took one final blow at her self-confidence by insulting her before finally demanding the keys.

The story has a happy ending. Mary didn’t fall for Hank’s tactics. She drove away as soon as he demanded the keys.

We don’t know what was on Hank’s mind. Maybe it was all perfectly innocent and he meant well. But Mary told me that she believes he wanted to steal her car. When she returned to the store later, she noticed Hank still loitering on the street, possibly waiting for the next potential victim.

All we know is that Hank was acting strangely. He was violating social norms. He was insulting and demanding. He invaded her space. Whether or not Hank was sizing Mary up for a crime, she responded early enough to foreclose the opportunity. We don’t know what might have happened had she allowed the situation to progress further.

Mary shows us the most important thing to know about handling bullies and predators. A response doesn’t need to be perfect or elegant. It needs to be timely.

Mary’s story comes from my book, Surviving Aggressive People. If your interested in reading more about recognizing predators and preventing violent encounters before they start, you can download two free chapters right here.

And you can read about my first successful encounter with a bully over at my blog. My response wasn’t quite as nuanced as Mary’s. I wound up with a bloody nose, but it was a success in the end. I even ended up on semi-friendly terms with my bully.

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Shawn Smith is a psychologist in Denver, Colorado and the author of Surviving Aggressive People: Practical Violence Prevention Skills for the Workplace and the Street. Please join him on Facebook for interesting links and news.

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