Thursday, April 17, 2014

On Gossip and Bullying (Observational Musings)

Today I'd like to tackle an observational topic: Gossip and bullying.

Everybody knows that gossiping and bullying are bad things.  They can poison an otherwise pleasant work environment; they can thoroughly turn an otherwise eager child off to going to school.

A local television network in my area has been running an anti-bullying campaign for well over a year now.  They talk about how children should report bullying to a trusted adult; they run stories of kids who have "risen above being bullied"; but never, NEVER do they ever clearly define what bullying is.  Kids are just supposed to know it, name it, and take appropriate action.  Hmm...

In the adult world I've worked for two large corporations: one a major defense contractor, the other a much smaller printing company.  Both do regular harassment-awareness training where their employees watch videos of overly dramatized scenarios of various forms of harassment.  In the most recent awareness training I attended, my suspicions were confirmed that people (even adults) don't have a clear idea of what gossip and bullying are.

We had just watched a video of a new guy on the job being mercilessly picked on by his fellow co-workers.  The woman sitting next to me asked very honestly, "Was that bullying?" (Perhaps assuming that such activities could only be found in a schoolyard.)  I leaned in and whispered an emphatic, "Yes!"

People - child and adult alike - just don't know!

I'm still at a loss as to why such negative behavior is not clearly identifiable to most people the way sexual harassment is; but I'd like to offer up my definitions and views on the subjects.

Gossiping: Talking about someone who isn't present; often conveying a story with a negative or demeaning overtone or which places the person in a bad light.  It can be as innocuous as complaining your husband never takes out the garbage and all he wants to do is watch TV or as potentially harmful as whispering to a co-worker, "Did you hear Jessy in receiving is having an affair with the boss?"

Gossip can easily turn into one-upmanship where people exchange stories that are embarrassing at other people's expense.  Lord knows I've been guilty of this, but once I made myself aware of what I was doing I've focused on shutting down such behavior and keeping my mouth shut as much as possible when it comes to talking about others.  It undermines people's opinion of others - even others they've never met - and perpetuates negativity and disrespect.

Bullying: Making another person feel inferior; this can be done through words, actions to even how you present yourself in the other person's presence.

There's a fine line between "innocent joking around" and downright bullying, but their is a line and it's one you can feel.  It's that moment when a person is no longer an equal but one who is beneath you.  A person never bullies someone whom they feel is "above" them nor do they bully those on equal footing.  It's the one we look down on who gets kicked because they "deserve it", are inferior in some way, or too [fill the blank with something you don't agree with].

That is bullying and it's hurtful, it steals energy from others and makes them realize you are not a friend (or at least it should make them realize that!).

Something that I find endlessly frustrating is those stories where a bullied child finally snaps and either strikes back at their harassers or kills themselves.  In the former instance this retaliatory action is often the first and only action to be taken seriously by adults despite any prior attempts to call awareness to the existing issue.  Usually it's the bullied child who ends up being punished or humiliated in these cases.  In the latter instance people mourn the "loss of a good kid" and more breast beating happens of "We must save our children from bullying!!!" but nothing effective ever happens.

Honestly I think there needs to be more awareness of these two social vices.  Both gossip and bullying need to be clearly defined at an early age.  Kids need to not just be told, "That is bad!"  They need to be told "Why".  Yes, I understand that part of childhood is exploring boundaries and the power of words, but I think we handle this transitional time too lightly.  "Oh, kids can be so mean sometimes," and then we shrug and move on.

Yes kids can be mean and they need to be told one on one that such behavior is unacceptable; that no one is beneath them and no one deserves to be disrespected with name-calling to their face or among their friends.  I do understand that schools have tried various techniques in the past: the whole "self esteem revolution" in the '90s.  Yeah, that did a lot, right?

Why did it fail?  Some great motivational speaker would come in and give their spiel and you'd feel so good afterwards, but nothing changed outside of the auditorium - teachers still looked the other way as the "popular" kids looked down on and bullied the weak; and the weak and skittish children were continually encouraged to keep quiet and keep their heads down so they could pass the next test.  There was no follow-through on the part of the adults - the children were expected to straighten it all out themselves.

We as adults though need to set the example.  Don't tell those funny, but embarrassing stories.  Don't laugh at other people's misfortunes.  Don't act all haughty and holier-than-thou when you run into someone you don't like at the grocery store.  Point out instances of gossiping and bullying in TV shows and start a dialog with you child (if you have one), or with yourself if you don't.  "How do you think Jimmy felt when Jenny said that?"  "I know that line was meant to be funny, but that was a really hurtful thing to say," and so on.

Catch yourself in the middle of bad behavior so that next time you can catch yourself sooner.  It's easy to change the world if each individual takes responsibility for their own actions.


  1. This is a great, to the point discussion on bullying and is presented in an easy to understand way.