bullying,  the ethical life

Relational bullying, aggression and being nice

Share Button

Before I wrote the post on bullying (almost a month ago) I had borrowed from the library two books about bullying, but then because life got busy, I didn’t start reading them until a few days ago. Now I’m partly through both books. One makes me feel very uncomfortable, and one inspired.

The book that makes me feel uncomfortable is called Little girls can be mean : four steps to bully-proof girls in the early grades by Michelle Anthony and Reyna Lindert. Directed at parents and teachers the book outlines how to observe a situation, connect with the child, guide a child into good options and then support the child in following through with the options. In discussing different sample situations the authors point out what the children and adults in the situations did right and where they went wrong and I’m left frustrated. It feels the book suggests we need to be perfect parents, following a 4-step guide, so we can help our less than perfect children act perfectly. The chapter on “if your child is the bully” starts with a situation where a girl attempts to resist a bully and in doing so acts like one, and here’s how to help your child not act like the bully even in self-defense, and it reinforces that idea that there are good girls and bad girls and if you aren’t nice all the time you’re one of the bad girls.

The book I like is called Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons. I’m not all that far along in it but so much of it makes sense to me that I’ve got a pile of odd paper slips marking different pages for review. The book talks about how girls are pressured to “be nice” even to the extent of denying how they feel or how they see things. They cannot take direct action to solve problems because that would make them look “not nice” and expose them to more problems, so instead they resort to what the author refers to as “alternative aggression.” Here’s my favorite paragraph so far:

A girl learns early on that to voice conflict directly with another girl may result in many others ganging up against her. She learns to channel feelings of hurt and anger to avoid their human instigator, internalizing feelings or sharing them with others. She learns to store away unresolved conflicts with the precision of a bookkeeper, building a stockpile that  increasingly crowds her emotional landscape and social choices. She learns to connect with conflict through the discord of others, participating in group acts of aggression where individual ones have been forbidden. (pg 69)

Her book might be focused primarily on teenage girls but that description strikes chords with me now. I think of a committee where attempting to deal with conflicting ideas about how something should be done resulted in my being repeatedly called a bitch. It was just one person on the committee who continued to reframe the conversation so that it was not about how things should be run but was about me being bitchy or disliking him. At one point someone said that so-and-so says I’m angry at him and I should just “kiss and make up.” That was so unbelievably demeaning to be told that because it made it sound like what mattered was the relationship between us while sweeping under the carpet the specific issues that were causing the problems.

After a number of attempts to deal directly with the individual and the situation in question failed, I ended up resorting to what the book describes as gathering allies and then applying relational aggression. I became the bully. Except of course what I actually did was talk about the problem with a number of other people in the organization, discovered they had similar problems, and we looked at what needed to be done to take steps to solve the problem. But where exactly is the difference between that and bullying?

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice includes the beautiful line “where does discretion end and avarice begin?” I want to know where assertiveness end and aggression begins, because in truth, I do not know, but when we are not allowed to deal with the specific actions that are a problem then the only option seems to be to act as though the whole person was the problem.

The saying “hate the sin, love the sinner” is one I’m thinking of right now, not in the religious content but in the way of separating the action from the person doing it. I’ve had times in my life of thinking that the phrase was crazy, because what are people but the compilations of their actions? Yet I have times of liking that idea because I have times of recognizing that we are not the sum of our parts and we need to accept that not all our parts are perfect. We need to be willing to hold the different parts of ourselves up to public scrutiny, at least occasionally, and be willing to change them. That’s what being responsible is, isn’t it? Being willing to respond to things, to change when necessary?

One of the stories told in Odd Girl Out involves a group of girls who allowed their frusturation, anger and jealousy build up for three years before they had a “legitimate cause” to be angry, in which case they over reacted horribly. Unfortunately I can relate to that too, the sense of having to doubt my own perception and push down my emotions, assuming that I must be the one with a problem if I see something wrong or if I object to something. It fits in with the pressure to be a good girl, to be pleasant and not argumentative, but also to put other people’s feelings above one’s own. In Odd Girl Out Rachel Simmons describes a conversation with some students about what it means to be nice.

“What if,” I asked, “you were just telling someone how you felt, because you felt bad? You know, to make yourself – your friendship – a little better?” 
“Then you might hurt her feelings,” one said. Nods. Locking eyes.
“Can you tell someone the truth and not be mean?” I asked.
“The truth hurts,” a girl in the corner said quietly. “That’s why I lie.”

How can we teach our children both to care for other people and at the same time to trust their own emotions? How do we teach them to disagree respectfully? To accept disagreement respectfully? For myself I feel like I still carefully weigh and balance things out. When did I last admit to someone that I disagreed with them? How did they take it? How can I frame things as delicately as I can? Yet I still feel like I’m wearing an invisibility cloak half the time, carefully trying to reflect back to people only what they want to see, and of course if I am not being completely honest I can’t trust that anyone else is either, which ads to the feeling of fear. How can we trust others?

The other thing I like about the book Odd Girl Out is the acknowledgement right from the beginning that the effects of relational aggression linger. It isn’t just a question of not taking the insults and shunning personally. If a bully is one slightly large mean person who shoves you into the wall or says nasty things about you then you might be able to just write off that person and say “hey, what they say doesn’t matter and I’ll try to minimize what they can do to me” but if the aggression comes in the form of how the majority of your peers interact with you, you can’t do that. You can’t write off everyone. If your social milieu is one that promotes insecurity, one where a single mistake can get you rejected by everyone and even the people who are your friends some of the time cannot be trusted, then there’s likely to be lingering pain and distrust for ages. One girl quoted in the book describes it thusly:

“I’m such a scared person now,” she told me. “I’m always worried about what people think about me. I’m always worried about what people are going to say about me behind my back. I never used to care! Because people talked about me all the time, and I just didn’t care I’m always worried about why people hate me,” she said. “They made me like this.”
Trusting her new friends is daily work. “I’m better about it, but I still become a wreck just because I’m scared that it will happen again, or I’ll be a bad friend.”
 (pg 98)

Bullying is something that we associate with children. I feel stupid writing about it because engrained in me is this idea that if I just knew proper social skills it wouldn’t happen or wouldn’t bother me. Yet even as an adult I have experienced all sorts of alternative aggression. I’ve stayed with people who, because I said something about a store they liked, refused to speak to me for three of the days I was with them and then yelled at me when I choose to leave. One of my son’s friend’s mothers misinterpreted a comment I made once and now my son can’t play with her son. I had an almost complete stranger misunderstand something, refuse my attempt to explain and then I learn later she’s badmouthed me to a bunch of our mutual aquaintances. I still see her around and I still know she’s good friends with people I care about and I live wondering whether someday they’ll join her in rejecting me. I’ve had people I feel close to who have pulled away after I’ve said something, and I had to put a tremendous effort into repairing the relationship, coaxing the person into conversation and monitoring everything I say.

I assume that as you’re reading this you’re wondering what kind of horrible things I’ve said to people but the truth of the matter is they were not horrible things. They were minor, mundane and definately not something worth being rejected from people’s lives for. I feel like as a caring thoughtful person I’m supposed to give others the benefit of the doubt, yet when they don’t confront with what their specific problem is but instead turn on someone completely shun and be hostile it is incredibly confusing. I can doubt myself or I can doubt them, and like most people who have ever been in these situations I find myself doing both at times.

From the book:

The girls I interviewed confirmed a similar unrest, the disturbing belief that what they were sure they knew or saw wasn’t that at all, but was in fact something different. In discord between girls, gestures of conflict often contradict speech, confounding their intended targets. In such a universe, for a girl to trust her own truths, her own version of events, can be excruciatingly difficult. (pg 101)

I know it isn’t just me. I know people whose workplaces are marred with communication problems, shunning, public humiliation and all the other things we’d like to believe are confined to highschools. I don’t take this as a fact of life though. I don’t take it as a sign that we should just give up on good communication and accept that being bullied is the reality of existence. I will not say that teenage bullying is a right of passage into an adulthood filled with strife.

Somehow I still believe that people can learn better communication skills. The idea that we need to drop the “nice girl” image and encourage people to speak honestly about how they are experiencing things makes sense to me. I think for me acknowledging the fear and accepting the risks involved in dealing with people helps. I’m only about half of the way through reading Odd Girl Out, so I’m hoping there will be more insight and guidance in the rest of that book.

I ask myself what my point is in writing this post, since it is in some ways the most difficult self-revealing post I have written. It is terrifying for me to write this because even as an adult I still carry so much of the guilt and shame and confusion of not knowing better how to interact with people. Yet I also want to write this as my challenge to myself and the world to be more honest. I want people to learn to fight fair, to argue fair about ideas and issues and behaviours, so that tensions don’t build up and relationships aren’t polite false facades.  But also something more, and I’m not sure what that is. I’m still trying to understand so many questions about human interactions and how it is we can treat one another with respect without just ‘being nice.’

Share Button


  • Shad Sterling

    When I saw this post’s title I thought you might have seen the other post about bullying I read today: Lawrence Lessig: Prosecutor as bully

    Even if we are the sum of our parts, one “bad” part (e.g. not handling disagreement well) doesn’t mean the sum is bad. But that nonimplication also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to improve.

    I’m never quick enough to say this sort of thing at the right time, but after something like that I might think I should have said something like this: “Calling me names will only affect my opinion of you, if you want to affect my opinion on the issue you’re going to have to talk about the issue.”

    • christyk

      I hadn’t seen that post.

      The line about how calling a person names will only affect the person’s opinion of the name-caller is good. Unfortunately I think a lot of bullying isn’t as obvious as name-calling. There’s subtle undermining of people where its hard to find the exact write time to identify that its happening then, and be able to point it out.

    • christyk

      I read the post you linked to, and I think… yes, the idea that the “law is blind” was supposed to in some ways prevent bullying, and yet the way in which it is applied can end up being that, and then the media and the public turns on people too.

      There needs to be ways in which people can make mistakes and be forgiven for them.

    • Shad Sterling

      Looking again I don’t think my snappy retort is good; it’s belittling, which (at best) doesn’t help. The second part is better, but maybe not the best way to direct the conversation to talking about the issue.

  • Lionel

    Excellent post, as always. I always enjoy your thought provoking and in this case soul baring posts. These are difficult questions with no clear cut answers. I think the fact that you are contemplating them and searching for a better way to build relationships and communicate is admirable. I don’t have many answers, I suppose at some point (I’m getting closer to being there) I just don’t care about the shenanigans of troublesome people. I have decided that I do, however, always have room in my life for good people. It isn’t often to find them, but when I do I make sure to build relationships and have them in my life. Thanks again for such a wonderful post.

    Paul R. Hewlett

  • Sue VanHattum

    Thanks for sharing your vulnerability. It is so hard for people to be assertive about these things, but that’s vital. Once we bury our hurts, it comes out as resentment.

  • educator

    I was one of those girls who was taught to be nice no matter what. It makes one a target for bullies. I had to learn to stand up for myself.