Created | Updated Nov 16, 2004
In the adult world, bullying is called 'harassment', and there are thousands of different rules making it illegal, especially if it has its roots in sexist, racist, or ageist attitudes. Harassing someone because they're incompetent, or just plain ugly, is more socially acceptable, provided the incompetence or ugliness is not caused by some medical problem, of course. Among young people, or when the speaker is trying to make it sound less serious, it's called bullying, which sounds cuter, and brings images of Tom Brown's School Days type books. If you want to make it sound much more serious, try 'abuse', which immediately gets the listener thinking of grievous bodily harm and rape, and which will make others take you seriously. Other terms/phrases to watch out for include respect1, and cheeky2.
Bullying comes in many different forms. Generally, people split bullying into physical and verbal bullying, because if it can be categorised it will fit into a handy help sheet, and all our problems are solved. In practice, the division is never so clean; it is rare that people will beat a guy/girl up without stopping to shout abuse at them, and even the purest of verbal bullying tends to include accidental trips or pushes. There is no black or white here. You don't have to get a bruise before you can claim to be bullied physically, nor does someone have to call you a name before you are being verbally bullied. If someone is repeatedly doing things to you that you do not like, and they know that you do not like it, then it is bullying, or worse. Some people also talk about psychological bullying, where the bullied person is made to feel excluded, or vulnerable, but no words or actions are taken.
Psychological Bullying - A Researcher's Experience
While physical and verbal bullying are prevalent in most societies, psychological bullying is also on the increase. As we become more aware at a younger age, we quickly learn how to manipulate the minds of others at an increasingly young age.
With psychological bullying, once you no longer care what the bully thinks of you or says to you or about you, the bullying is over, no matter what the former bully may do. It's unique in that way because the amount of suffering is determined entirely by the bullied. The earlier victims realise this, the sooner they can stop the misery.
Psychological bullying is very often a 'girl' thing. Boys will normally rely on physical strength to gain power over other boys. The problem with psychological bullying is you can't define it. You go to tell a teacher or a parent about the bullies and they ask you for specific instances where they have done you harm and there is nothing; you say 'they were looking at me funny' or 'they laughed at me' or 'they were talking about me' or 'they didn't talk to me'. You can't pin anything down and you end up looking like an oversensitive fool who can't take it if you're not always in the central spotlight and everyone loves you. This is where being a loner can actually help. However, another problem comes if you are a social butterfly and you do need the company of others. The answer to this is cultivate your own group. Here is one Researcher's experience;
Well, this was my first experience with hatred, and I had no idea how to deal with it. The class I had come from had about 14 people who had for the most part been in the same class since first or second grade (six and seven years old, roughly). We all knew each other's strengths and weaknesses, and we drew attention to the strengths and didn't mention the weaknesses. For instance, we always talked about how one boy was the fastest runner in the school and how he could draw well, never that in third grade he had only memorized the times tables up to the threes. I won't go so far as to say we were all friends - there was the typical rivalry between girls and boys of that age - but we had a peaceful, cooperative accord between us.
Then I skipped fifth grade (being such a small school, there was no programme for talented students, so their solution was to skip me), and this girl, we'll call her Amy, hated me. The reason for this is that previously, she had been the only one in the school to skip a grade (she didn't go to kindergarten - big deal, neither did I, but that's incidental), and she constantly called attention to that fact. Then I came along, ten months younger than her and having skipped a grade more recently, and I did better than her. The reason for this was that instead of paying any marginal attention in class, she was always talking with her symbiote, we'll call her Carrie. The two did everything together and were the most powerful force in the class, so once Amy decided she hated me, Carrie hated me too, and manipulated the class so that they were all more or less against me.
I was totally unaware of this. I thought everything was still the same as my old class, so I kept trying to make friends with people.
The girls mainly made me do stuff I didn't like; not so much made me, but I thought I had to, to try to make friends with them. They made me feel ashamed to do the things I liked to do, like reading and singing in the school choir. In particular I remember one instance. Over a period of about a week, I had been reading several different books: one was about a girl who went insane ('Lisa Bright and Dark', in case you're interested, it's good), another was about a girl who got AIDS ('It Happened to Nancy'), another was about a girl who used drugs ('Go Ask Alice)', and so on. After I told her about the third one, Amy looked at me funnily and said,
'You like books about people with problems, don't you?'
The boys mainly harassed me as I played games on the computer, generally by taking the form of surrounding me and chanting loudly, 'You're gonna die!'. Once I got so mad I picked up a chair and started swinging it at them. Didn't hit anyone, though.
How the epiphany came about: Amy and Carrie liked to act like they were little kids or babies, so they often devised stupid games to help them do this. We were playing one of these games on the playground one day, and I announced, 'I'm next'. Amy retorted, 'No, I'm next'. I said, 'But... I called it first'. And she said, 'I am next'. And all of a sudden, it occurred to me, I'm playing a game I think is stupid, with people I don't like and who don't like me. Why? They've been making me unhappy all school year, and I've been making myself unhappy; they're obviously not going to stop making me unhappy, but I can at least make myself happy and be happy on one count. So the remainder of the year was fairly pleasant.
Later in the year (I think the epiphany occurred in February, so this is still winter) we were all out on the playground, and Amy and Carrie had taken everyone else's winter jackets to help build themselves a fort inside one of the huge tyres we had lying horizontally on the ground - she didn't take mine, though. And one of the other girls said,
'I wish I had my jacket back. I'm cold.'
'So go and take it,' I said 'They don't have more right to it than you. It's meant to keep you warm, not to build them forts with. Go and take it back and tell them you need it more than they do.'
And she just looked at me as though the thought had never occurred to her, and as though she'd never consider doing it even now after I had pointed it out to her. I may have been the most obvious victim, but those two manipulated everybody, and I don't think anyone much was happy except those two, and possibly not even them.
There are standard comments here, which may or may not be true. The first to spring to mind is 'bullies are often very insecure inside'. So in order to hide their deep-seated insecurity, they beat people up. As opposed to all the other insecure people you know, who are shy, and get bullied. Perhaps it would be more true to say that bullies were insecure, but now that they are respected and feared by everyone else, they are likely to be distinctly more secure than the average school-goer.
'Bullies were probably bullied themselves, and therefore think it's fair' is another reason given for bullying. Also true, but don't think that this makes it inevitable that it has to be perpetuated .
'Bullies are cowardly, and bully because they're afraid of a fair fight'. At this stage the advisee is no doubt crying rivers for those poor misunderstood bullies, and remembering them in their prayers. Or more likely, getting a little irritated, and wondering on whose side the adviser is actually on. Regardless of which, bullies aren't cowardly, they're just not stupid. If you have a choice between beating someone up in a fair fight, or grabbing a metal crowbar, and making it unfair, which are you going to choose?
'They're just jealous'. There is a grain of truth here, because if you're different you'll get bullied, and one of the ways you can be different is to be too intelligent, or too sporty, or whatever. But you'll also get bullied if you're too stupid, or too unsporty, and stupidity-envy is a difficult concept to accept.
Ok, now we move away from the standard answers, and into stuff which hopefully you won't have heard ten times before. Alpha Male; in the wild, when groups of animals roam round in packs, there will always be one animal that rises to the top and is in control of the pack. The alpha male gets first pick of the good-looking females, and the best pick of meat. Below him is the next male, and so on down the hierarchy down to the bottom. Bullying is the time-honoured way of establishing what that hierarchy is. Whenever a newcomer arrives, they will get bullied until they find their place in the chain, and things settle down again.
Bullying is just plain fun or, put simply, a power trip. You get other people whimpering in front of you begging for mercy, the little things in life seem to happen much more easily, you can always count on someone lending you 20p for the pool machine. Life is good at the top. Extreme bullying happens when power corrupts, which happens just the same way as in politics and Judge Dredd cartoons.
The fear of the different is another major cause of bullying. Children are the most risk-averse, conservative, sheepish group of creatures you'll ever be around. Whatever the reason for this, what it means is that if you're at all different from the absolute average, you'll get bullied. Unusual name? Unusual accent? Unusual religion? Gay? Smoke when everyone else doesn't, or vice versa? Amusing initials? Non-standard haircut? Parents have an unusual job? Odd hobby? Too intelligent? Stupid? Tall? Fat? Big feet? The more different you are, the more you'll get bullied. Welcome to the sensitive, tolerant, world of the future.
Another problem is that sometimes geeks or anyone who doesn't fit in all that well, will try to get in on the 'in crowd' by abusing others. Natural targets for other bullies will divert their attacker's attention by picking on a weaker person than themselves.
The Escalation Theory is where violence is generally avoided, because it is 'bad', and because it risks injury. Because of this, people usually use lots of tiny escalations trying to achieve whatever their goals are by bluff. A victim of bullying often combines a failure to appropriately match escalations with a stubborn refusal to accede to the opponent's goals. The bully then repeats the small escalations, be they shoves, or name calling, in the hope of eventually achieving their goals - normally something minor, such as acknowledgement of the bully's strength. This can quickly become a routine, which is when bullying proper sets in.
'What did I do wrong?' is the question many victims ask themselves. Some people don't have their parts of their brain that deal with empathy appropriately wired together, and so will never realise that when they break somebody's teeth that the victim isn't really enjoying the experience. Fortunately, these people are rare, but the excuse (ie 'it was just a game') is much more common. Genuine cases can often be dealt with by pointing out the consequences of their actions. Fakers probably actively enjoy someone showing them the fruits of their hard work.
The role of 'Authority Figures' in bullying is another matter. Bullying is often described as an interaction between one bully and one victim. This isn't always the case. At the very least, there is an audience which plays a vital role in egging on the bully and in compounding the humiliation of the victim. Often a group gangs up on an outsider. In truth, the gang is not all that interested in the victim. They are interested in defining who is in and who is out, initiating new members or establishing a pecking order based on who is the most extreme in tormenting a victim. An important thing to realise about this is that the 'gang' sometimes includes the teacher. A weak teacher can establish the co-operation of the majority of his/her pupils by organising them - subtly and almost imperceptibly - into a gang by identifying a victim and giving a kind or permission for the tormenting. The only solution to this, but a completely effective one, is to change teachers.
Some problems can be dealt with in specific ways, but generally you have a few options which apply to all of them. There is a downside, however, in that they don't always work, and they may make the situation worse. A lot of solutions don't change the situation, but make you feel better about yourself, and this is always a good thing. There will also be things which are imposed 'from above' to attempt to solve the issue. The important thing to remember about these is that they are aiming to solve the school's problem, not your problem. Your problem is getting bullied. The school's problem is knowing that you're getting bullied, and others knowing that you're getting bullied. In some cases, bullying may even be something a school or teacher encourages; the bullied person is a 'sacrificial lamb' to try and get everyone else to behave.
'Ignore it' is one philosophy on dealing with bullying. If you think that the reason people are bullying you is because they find your reaction amusing, ignoring it could be the solution for you. The general way things are supposed to go is that for the next few days you get bullied harder, then all of a sudden they'll magically lose interest, and move on to richer pickings in the kid down the road. The really important part of this solution, though, is not how it changes the bullying, but how it changes you. If you can conquer yourself to the extent that you don't react, then you'll have gained a very useful skill - self control - and that will be useful later on. Of course, this is a lot easier said than done; you're in the middle of a psychological war, feeling emotionally fragile, and someone tells you that if you ignore it then eventually it will go away. There's also the question of exactly how you ignore problems such as stuff getting nicked, or being barred entry to somewhere, and that kind of thing. There's no right answer here, but be prepared for what might happen during the temporary escalation, and plan your response.
Ignoring the bullies will often infuriate them, and cause them to go to greater extremes in an attempt to provoke a response. The other snag with this strategy is that it can leave the victim very isolated.
A subtle variation on ignoring bullying is to avoid it. At one level this means simply turning around and walking the other way whenever you see a bully, at another this means truancy. You may get told that this is bad, because then 'the bullies will win'. Point out to such people that this isn't General Custer's Last Stand3, and winning or losing is rather irrelevant to the whole situation. In practice, evasion will minimise the damage, but you won't be able to run away forever; at some point you will get caught. That said, it's a decent piece of damage control, and if it can give you the mental breathing room to plan your way out of it, it can only be a good thing. It will fail miserably if trying to get you to run away becomes the new fun game in town, or if it is just geographically impossible.
Think Karate Kid, and any one of a dozen other martial arts movies where the hero goes away, makes himself stronger, and a better fighter, probably under the training of an old man or janitor, while running away like crazy. Then one day, he stands up, smacks all four of his bullies simultaneously, grabs the girl, and becomes the school hero, probably creating world peace and saving the ozone layer in his spare time. It's a corny storyline, but it can work. In practice, martial arts proper are possibly a little over the top, and you should be aware that if you are known to be into martial arts, then there is a fair chance you will be treated as a trouble-maker, and the closing credits will see you in extra detention - not great. A good alternative is self defence classes. They're just as easy to find, they sound a lot nicer to authority, and they're probably a lot more practical in the short term. If, however, you feel that a belt and funny clothes would give you more self respect, or gain you more respect from others, then aikido comes highly recommended. A non-aggressive self defence martial art is tai chi where the emphasis is on defense rather than attack.
The problems with the movie method is that you have a good chance of losing, in practice, and it's normally impossible to excuse what you did as anything other than a direct assault on the bully's authority. It also fails to work if the difference in strength and skill is too vast. That's when cheating becomes useful. First off, lay the ground-work. You need to have a convincing temper; if this is natural, then you have an edge. You also need the school to be vaguely on your side by making sure that they know you are being bullied, but not who by. You probably don't want their help, just a few get-out-of-detention-free cards for what follows. Now, next time you are bullied, look for an opportunity to strike back. If there is no such ability, put on that face which means that you're fighting your temper, and succeeding in controlling it; this earns you brownie points with the school. If there is an opportunity, take it.
Suppose that you are eating lunch, and get bullied in some way. Throw an entire container of sugar/jam/water over them, followed by the contents of your plate. Similarly, if in a fight somewhere in public, ignore the normal rules of combat, and pull hair, grab at the groin, and generally fight dirty. Don't bother ducking or warding off blows because the more you get hurt, the better the resolution when the school breaks it up, and the more obvious who the bad guy is. The general idea is that during these 'temper flares' you ignore your own pain, or the loss of your possessions, and concentrate on injuring or embarrassing or smashing the possessions of one person as much as possible. Of course, while your temper is 'under control' you should be the model of sincerity and repentance. Apologise profusely to the guy who's head you've just created a scene with, and anyone else who might be around. Promise you'll try better to control yourself, and so forth. If you succeed you'll be a social outcast, but you won't be bullied. If you fail then you'll lose the support of the school, and the respect of most of your pupils. Don't try this if bullies can attack you outside of school/youthclub/etc as you need someone to break the fights up before you get severely battered. One more note of caution - don't use weapons. If you use a knife, or whatever, then it's premeditated, and you'll be in big trouble.
There's a technique which is known to be successful at avoiding violence with a bully. It basically consists of conceding victory to the bullies instantly, and without hassle, on the basis that doing so is probably going to hurt less than sticking up for yourself. This means that you should keep your eyes downcast, and your mouth closed. You should put yourself at a height disadvantage, either by standing somewhere lower, or by squatting. Agree with whatever the bully says, put yourself down, and so forth. Wish them luck in exams, and support them if they play for a sports team. If you're lucky, the bully will be satisfied with this, and will leave you alone. If you're unlucky, they will decide they will see this as a sign of weakness, and try and exploit it, and either way round you'll probably lose a lot of self-esteem, and possibly esteem among other people at the school. This technique is best used, perhaps, against those who you don't think are particularly sadistic, and so won't take advantage of your surrender, or in those cases where a single bully (or gang of bullies) has the entire school in thrall, where you won't lose much esteem, and you might even be viewed as stupid if you stood up to them.
That seems a bit far to go, doesn't it? Well, if you'd like to keep some shred of self-respect, try just acknowledging the bullies in a positive way, but do so as an equal. Ask them how they are, wish them luck, compliment them on the sharpness of their flick knife. Smile at them. If you're picking teams for some sport, why not pick them first, and then ask them for advice on who to pick next? However, while doing this keep your head up, shoulders square, and make it clear to all that you consider yourself equal in stature to them. Don't forget that this can be done on an individual basis. You might give respect to the bully who you consider has the most redeeming social features, while continuing to run away like crazy from any others.
Some argue that extreme submission is not the best way to go about winning empathy from your bully. It is perhaps a subtle matter, but the objective is to identify the bully's goals and find a way of satisfying them without losing any status yourself because the ultimate purpose is to be accepted as another person on an equal footing. Respect can be offered without loss of self-esteem, if it is offered with head held high, shoulders straight and a smile.
A smile may be threatening to a dog, but it is not to a human.
Here are some Researchers' personal accounts of what they did to thwart bullies. The first experience is excessive but nonetheless emotive as it highlights the the pain and lengths some people will go to in order to combat bullying.
I studied many forms of hand-to-hand combat. In time, I hit puberty. When I hit puberty I filled out. A lot. I went from a shy, chubby little boy who could be safely picked on by anybody to a 180lb (12.8 stones) force to be reckoned with. Nature gave me what I could not provide for myself: size. I have not engaged in combat since I was 15. Nowadays, I no longer have any need for it. I weigh 230lbs (16.4 stones). More important than anything else, though, is that I have learned to look dangerous, and I have learned that it's very difficult to injure me.
Yet, secure in this body that gives me respect that I have earned simply by virtue of size, there is still a shy little boy who used to get picked on viciously.
People show great reluctance to engage in violence. One reason is that they have been taught that it is bad. Another is that they risk getting hurt. A confrontation usually proceeds by a huge number of tiny, finely graduated escalations with each side hoping to achieve their goals by bluff.
When involved in a confrontation, it is really helpful to be aware of your opponent's goals and precisely how the escalation is proceeding. A victim of bullying often combines a failure to appropriately match escalations with a stubborn refusal to accede to the opponent's goals.
The goals can be surprisingly simple and straightforward. They can involve no more than acknowledgement and a little respect. This is called stroking and is a skill well worth learning. Looking a person in the eye, calling them by name, asking a simple question ( What's up? ) or offering an empty compliment ('looking good, dude') is sufficient. Sufficient, but not at all easy if you are feeling vulnerable and the person is horrid.
Matching escalations is conceptually straightforward, but hard to do in the heat of the moment. If you are insulted or shoved, insult or shove right back. It is extra good if you can make a joke of it. Do not answer an insult with a punch, or shrug off a shove.
The problem with a minor escalation, such as answering a shove with a punch, is that it tends to remove the inhibitions against violence; 'I beat him up because he punched me first and for no reason'.
The problem with ignoring an escalation is that the bully has not had his/her bluff called, but neither has his/her goal been met. This is infuriating. There is no sense of satisfaction, so the bullying tends to be continued or repeated and quickly becomes habitual.
If all this is too difficult, and it may very well be until you have had been able to practice them in a safer environment, consider total escalation. Decide on your personal limit, being touched is good, and if this limit is crossed fly into a berserker rage. You won't make any friends, but the incident will be concluded and you might get left alone in future.
And here's one Researcher's answers to bullies who taunt their victims because of their sexuality:
Homophobia. It's a big problem in our school, 'gay' and 'queer' are used as an insult and it really annoys me. There were two blokes in my year who were gay, I was mates with both of them and one of them is still my best mate. The other he was always teased and called queer as an insult but then when he admitted it to everyone else they shut up so quickly it was hilarious. The kids lower down the school used to shout at him so I used to shout back and they soon got fed up, particularly 'when he said yeah so what?'. They had no idea how to react then so we just stood dancing the 'YMCA' and they never hassled him again.
Also, it was really bizarre to watch other reactions; the girls were never bothered by it and always stuck up for them but the lads were awful to start with. What changed it was when one of the group of lads went too far and his mates just turned around and told him to shut up. They started saying how it was clearly him who had the problem and pointed out that all the guys who were fine with it were those in relationships but the guy who was leading all the abuse was single. After that he just started mumbling and never mentioned it again.
Spill the Beans
I have absolutely no idea why I was bullied. Maybe because I get good scores or because I had short hair for a while or because I'm short or poor or generally just very annoying for some people but the way I dealt with it was to just tell.
Every time they started something, I would make a massive fuss and get in a temper and demand that they be arrested or put in detention. I wouldn't fight them or yell back at them, I would just cry very loudly and in public so everyone could see what they were doing to me. I would let my parents know when I got home and they would tell my teachers and it would all be very embarrassing for them. Bullies normally rely on their victims to keep quiet but I was so enraged that these people felt they had a right to judge me and that I had to obey them and respect their opinions of me. Like it made a significant difference to my life what they thought of it. It was a sort of 'who the hell asked you?'. I'm not suggesting everyone should deal with it this way because it might not always work but my advice is to tell anyone and everyone what's going on. Refuse to go to school and just make a fuss until it is cleared up. These people don't have a right to cause you harm, physically or mentally. You don't deserve it and you definitely don't need to take it.
Help from Elsewhere
This is all a bit violent, isn't it? Maybe if we all work together, perhaps we can do things in a much more pleasant way. Well, if you're one of those people who believe that violence doesn't solve anything, you could try talking to someone. Everyone should try and find someone to talk to and get advice from, solely for the purposes of lightening the burden on your heart. In the past, it has been hard to find a disinterested party, but with the birth of the Internet, you can pour your soul out to someone on a different continent, and know that they won't tell the bullies, or (sometimes worse) the school. That's hugely important.
Of course, there's another reason you might want to talk to someone - because you want them to help! Generally this means either school, parents, or friends. Like any piece of negotiation, you need to figure out what these people will get out of helping you, or they won't do it. Hopefully, your parents have your best interests at heart, so their help should be easy to achieve, though if you are in a particularly large family, then you might say that the bullies have threatened your siblings too, to get the issue a little more attention. Your school is mostly concerned with keeping clear of bad publicity and the law, so comments of the form 'if this doesn't stop soon, I don't know what I'll do' can help. They're probably also concerned with your grades, particularly if they have league tables4, so saying that it's affecting your work is possibly a good idea. Your friends are probably looking out for their own positions in the school, and possibly somewhat afraid of being bullied themselves. Make sure that if you propose some sort of plan, it doesn't involve them risking their neck for yours as few friends are that loyal.
You don't have to talk directly to people as direct communication often has the problem that you may get viewed as a tell-tale, which may well make bullying worse. A better technique is to draw attention to the problem indirectly. For example, you might stop doing any work at all so when the school notices, and asks you, then tell them the truth and ask for help. Then apologise to the bullies concerned (they'll find out sooner or later), and say that they asked you a direct question, and you're no good at lying. Apologising in advance (rather than after the bullies have been hauled into the office and are out looking for revenge), will make the consequences better for you, and make it clear that you realise how terrible being a tell-tale is. Having a well-publicised inability to lie under pressure also encourages bullies to be careful around you, which can only be a good thing.
So, if you're a friend of someone who's being bullied, what should you do to help without of course, making things worse? Therein lies a query...
If bullies realised what a lasting effect they had on people, then maybe they wouldn't do it . As it stands, there is no way to show them or to make them understand at the age when most bullying happens. Should there be a scheme where people who have been bullied can go round schools at an early age and talk directly to the students? This is one possible solution.
Bullying will never go away. We have to recognise the signs of a bully as well as their victims and teach our kids how to deal with it. We have to make sure the school or other environment where bullying takes place knows about it and helps put a stop to it.