I have been thinking about this a lot about this recently after being accused of bullying on Twitter after a one off tweet. I’m not going to go into this, I’d only get cross all over again, and people don’t like me when I’m cross.
However, it did remind me of the way the word is now used for all kinds of behaviour that, while they may not be kind, aren’t really bullying.
First of all a disclaimer.
A few years ago I was effectively bullied out of a career in teaching. It was the same scenario that has happened to many. An overly ambitious manager making excessive demands and blaming staff for anything that they perceive as holding them back in their upward trajectory. If you were following me on Twitter back then, you’ll know how much this affected my health. Before that I’d thought I was too strong a person to be bullied, I was wrong. It’s left me with scars. It can have long lasting and far reaching effects on people.
Maybe this is why I don’t like to see the word applied when what is actually happening is someone making an off the cuff remark or showing a dislike of someone. This may be unpleasant, but it isn’t bullying.
So. What is bullying then? I looked up some definitions. My own instinct is that for it to really be bullying, there has to be persistence of some kind rather than a one off instance and there has to be some measure of power differential. This, of course, could take many forms. The obvious one is physical, but it could also be intellectual, emotional or to do with power. In the latter case the obvious ones are senior employees bullying more junior ones but there are others such as relatively low ranked employees who have established a power base over time among peers or have relationships with those further up the tree. Knowing the right people counts for a lot. The other form this can take is in sheer numbers, which is what happens when a Twitter mob forms. I have noticed that this can happen without the encouragement of the original tweeter. This can also happen in a work setting when someone is newly appointed and is given a difficult time by existing staff, but the power differential is still there, numbers instead of hierarchy or possibly social advantage.
The actual nature of the bullying can take many forms. It can be overt or subtle. It can be disguised as help or support. It can take the form of undermining, in the case of teachers this is sometimes with students as well as with other staff. I suspect when this happens there is no way back.
Next question. What isn’t bullying. One off comments, rudeness and simply disliking someone. I think we should be allowed to not like others. And while it may not be pleasant to be rude, it isn’t bullying and if we label this kind of behaviour as such it belittles the problems of those who have really been bullied. My own experience has had a lasting effect on me. My confidence in my own judgement is still shot, I second guess myself all the time or avoid making decisions completely. I have a tendency to see criticism where none is implied. I often assume that perfectly neutral comments are critical and I find it hard to trust people, especially those in authority.
Bullying is not only unpleasant, it is destructive. Let’s use the term properly.