In learning to confront verbal abuse & bullying for the purpose of ending it, we have to confront our attitudes about ourselves which come from how we’re socialized. Women are most often the targets of insult because we’re taught to be gracious, even affable in the face of indignity. Many men also get caught if they don’t fit the stock character assigned to men. Men are taught to ward off abuse by using the stone-face mask, the Clint Eastwood “make my day” persona. And it works. But the problem is that it requires cocooning socially, holding yourself back from interactions with others, not being able to participate fully in social exchanges. If you like other people, that doesn’t work for you, but the affable person is the most likely to be targeted by bullies because of their openness.
The most important attitude to disabuse yourself of is that in some way you invite abuse, that you’re doing something wrong, or have some quality that makes others want to crap on you. You feel you have a sign on your forehead that says “victim” or “kick me.” You may feel that way because you’re so often targeted & in fact, many (including parents) will say outright you have a magnetic attraction for abuse. That’s nothing but baloney & horse manure. You don’t have to do a damn thing to provoke an abuser & it’s more likely your charms & virtues that provoke them. Is it possible that sometimes you did or said something awkward, even stupid? So what? Welcome to the human race. To err is human & all that jazz. It doesn’t mean you deserve insults.
There are particular psychological qualities that provoke bullies—like being easy-going & open. Or simply for being female. But there are also physical features that can make you a target: being short, especially for a man; being heavyset; having a prominent nose or ears; balding at an early age; a high-pitched voice in a man; a girlish voice in a women; being gay, effeminate or tom-boyish; the use of heavy makeup or no makeup at all; being “classically” pretty or not; having darker skin; having facial blemishes; having wide hips, prominent or small breasts. It doesn’t take much at all for the bully to locate what you may feel vulnerable about & zero in on it for ridicule.
The repertoire of abuse includes snide put-downs; insinuating remarks; gestures like eye-rolling or elbowing; snickering contemptuously. Sometimes the insults are masked & all you can discern is the contempt behind the comment. That’s the sniping style of bullying. The rule of thumb in discerning if it’s abuse or not? If it feels like it. Never underestimate the power of gut reactions. Could be your body talking to you.
So in thwarting abuse the first thing to dump is the notion that you (as many will tell you) are “your own worst enemy.” Rubbish! Nothing you do—unless of course you’re an abuser—justifies anyone taking liberties with you. You have a right to demand respect & not be treated like someone of no consequence. Of course when you do that you will be challenging the rules of social power in a society based on misogyny & inequality. Well screw those laws. They’ve no right to preempt your dignity & self-respect or to deprive you of peace of mind for being a gracious loving person.
For a long while assertive training has been in vogue but as many have found out in employing it, it rolls like water off a duck’s ass to many abusers because it depends on their good-will or belief they are reasonable—which they most often are not. And it requires pedagogical homilies explaining to them what’s wrong with insulting you. Leave their moral education to others. Your sole commitment is the pedagogy that comes with kicking ass, with aggression training—to teach them in no uncertain terms that you will not stand for insults. Period.
Once again, attitude is everything in aggression training. With a commitment to yourself to live with dignity, you stand tall (even if you’re only 5 feet tall), hold your head high, & learn the techniques for parrying the abuse.
Let me tell you a personal story about how I learned these techniques. When I first worked in a predominately male factory, the 6’4” union steward would come to my enclosed work station every night at lunch break for the sole purpose of sexually harassing me. He was extremely aggressive & offensive & I responded assertively: “Jim, I don’t talk to you that way & I don’t want you to talk to me like that. Blah blah blah” He waited till my speech ended & then continued his sexual suggestions. Not knowing how to stop him, I approached a fellow worker in frustration. He said to me, “What he’s doing to you is a sexual assault & you need to respond to it aggressively. The next time he starts, you say to him “Screw pal!” I’d never spoken to anyone like that & I said so. My coworker said “If you want to stop the harassment, that is what you need to learn. I would be willing to fight that battle for you but if you’re going to win your place in this environment you will have to learn to fight these battles yourself.”
So I went home & spent a weekend in front of a mirror practicing saying “Screw pal” so it didn’t come out in a whimper or with an iota of self-doubt.
When I went back to work I waited for the union guy to show up & when he did I screwed up all the energy I could muster to blurt out that “Screw pal.” I thought he’d snicker at me & I would be the fool. Instead he looked shocked & turned around & walked out. A monster was born that day & I’ve never looked back. And I never allowed him again to even look my way.
In exercising my new-found powers, I’ve learned one doesn’t have to swear. It’s perhaps preferable, though not essential, if you don’t. Always keep your dignity & be true to yourself if don’t like to use harsh language. Don’t be afraid to use it either. The point of practicing that “screw pal” scenario is only to cop the attitude behind it—the attitude that doesn’t cower behind self-doubt but comes out swinging. It’s the attitude that renders power, not the cursing.
Don’t give explanations. Don’t bother to tell someone why you’re offended. And don’t look for just the right words. Eloquence & long-winded speeches are not an advantage. Keep your language terse; in fact make it as short as possible. Don’t be afraid to blunder or stumble on your words. Just say “Stop.” “What do you mean by that?” “Are you talking to me?” “Go away.” And always accompany your words with the evil-eye. Don’t smile to soften the blow or they’ll take it as equivocation. Don’t be afraid to go overboard or ballistic either—like saying “Go to hell,” or “Get lost bucko.” Don’t worry about issuing empty threats. More than once, I’ve told someone I had eight brothers & if he didn’t stop harassing me, they would break every bone in his body. Don’t worry about roughing someone up if they’re not afraid to humiliate you.
If some physical or emotional feature of yours is often targeted, develop a stock phrase for rebuttal. For example, I’m 5’2” & often was teased for being short—something that never occurred to me I should be self-conscious about. An over 6-foot coworker once said to me, “I know how you little women compensate for being so short; you get big mouthes.” I retorted “How do you compensate for being so ugly?” He didn’t speak to me for 6 months & when he did the first thing he said was “Do you really think I’m ugly?” “No,” I said, “in fact you’re good-looking. You’ve just got a big mouth.” Find a phrase like that & keep it short & sweet. No explanations. If they make fun of your nose or your ears or you color or your height—whatever—nip it in the bud the first time. Try never to let them repeat ridicule a second time.
If you don’t get it right the first time, keep practicing attitude in the mirror. Don’t hate on yourself, don’t think you’re one of those who just can’t defend yourself. Don’t ever sell yourself short or underestimate your indignation when it comes to bullying. It’s all about attitude & a commitment to yourself that you will live in dignity, with the respect you’re due.
The purpose of all this is not some quid pro quo of abuse. Who the hell wants to spend their lives fighting or parrying off insults? The sole purpose is to let abusers know you will not be hospitable, that you will make it difficult for them to humiliate you or any others. When you’re old & gray what will still eat at you are the moments you let others run you around the block because you didn’t know how to stop it. Humiliation takes a long time to heal & it does because you internalize & begin to believe that somehow you are responsible when someone treats you like crap. To speak coarsely: screw that notion.