Most of us behave like a jerk at times. The stresses of today’s fast-paced society combined with a national epidemic of sleep deprivation can turn anyone temporarily toxic.
That’s OK if it’s not a habit, experts say. It’s frequent boorish behavior that can become contagious.
“Bad behavior is actually more contagious than good behavior,” said Robert Sutton, author of “The A–hole Survival Guide: How to Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt.”
“So if you walk into a situation where there’s a bunch of disrespect, it’s hard not to catch that behavior,” said Sutton, a professor of management science at the Stanford University School of Engineering.
But turning from Jekyll to Hyde occasionally does not make a person a bully. What does define a person as a true bully, Sutton says, is if they regularly make you feel “oppressed, humiliated, de-energized or belittled.”
The brutish actions that often lead to those feelings, Sutton said, include personal insults, teasing jokes, threats, public shaming, rude interruptions, invasion of personal space or uninvited personal contact.
Types of bullies
Preston Ni, the author of “How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People” and a communications professor at Foothill College outside San Francisco, has identified five types of adult bullies who use different techniques to inflict harm.
These bullies use their formal power, such as being a boss or executive at a company, or material power, such as having legal authority or control over finances, to intimidate others.
Power is a dangerous thing, Sutton said. “If you’re an a-hole and a winner, you are still a loser as a human being in my book.”
This type of bully shames and insults with words, often expressing constant criticism or using hostile teasing, Ni explained. Sometimes the language can be sexist, racist or homophobic, and can be threatening.
It might not sound like bullying, said Ni, but in some ways, this method is the most cunning. This type of jerk behaves nicely on the surface, but stings subtly.
Examples include toxic gossip, jokes and sarcasm at their victim’s expense. A passive bully can roll their eyes, make rude facial gestures and ridicule their target by mimicking some small action. They can also socially or professionally isolate their prey, thus causing insecurity and anxiety.
A huge problem today, cyberbullying can have lethal consequences for the young and vulnerable. Even mature and emotionally stable adults can be victims of harassing texts, emails and social media. Identity theft is another way of cyberbullying, Ni says.
This can range from simulating violence by raising a fist as if to strike, to throwing objects, to violent acts of physical, sexual and domestic abuse.
(Note: This article is not addressing sexual or domestic abuse and violence. If you are a victim please call 911, the National Domestic Violence Hotline or the National Sexual Assault Hotline.)
How to survive an adult bully
For many adult bullies, the journey begins in a troubled home.
“Certainly, there’s things like upbringing,” Sutton said. “Perhaps they had role models around them who treated others with disrespect and advised that to get ahead in life you should crush others and treat them like dirt.”
Research at Duke University shows that adults who bully often have had troubled childhoods and can be victims of abuse or bullying themselves. They also suffer the worst outcomes as adults. They are much more likely to suffer from a serious illness or psychiatric disorder, abuse drugs or be convicted of felonies. If they were chronically bullied, they are likely to be more isolated, less educated and poorer.
“There’s this saying: Some people want to feel tall by cutting off the heads of others,” said Ni. “Many bullies actually don’t feel very good about themselves, and the only way for them to feel good about themselves is to put others down.”
Flip your point of view
So, does that mean we should feel sorry for some bullies? As long as the bullying is not violent or threatening, you might consider it, Ni said, but not for the sake of the bully. It can actually help you cope.
“I think one of the smartest keys to learning how to deal with bullies, especially if this is somebody who you interact with on a more or less regular basis, is to consider this person’s background,” Ni said. “And if you know the person came from a traumatic family environment, showing some empathy and understanding in no way excuses the bullying behavior, but it reduces the intimidation factor.”
When you stop thinking of the bully as a scary person, you stop reacting in a flight-or-fight manner, Ni said, and can be wiser in devising assertive ways of handling the situation.
Pick your battles
Deciding on how to react depends a lot on the frequency and severity of the bullying behavior. If the behavior is not excessive or harmful and you only see the bully on occasion at work, or the obnoxious relative once a year at family reunions, then Ni suggests keeping your distance. As soon as you’re done with the task at hand, disengage and stay out of that person’s line of sight.
“We’re always looking to right wrongs in every single situation,” Ni said. “But it does take time and effort to handle bullying behavior in many cases. So, if it’s not directly harmful, if it’s infrequent, consider picking your battles. Engage, then disengage.”
Try some Jedi mind tricks
Jedis used the Force to implant suggestions in the minds of others to bend them to their will. Sutton suggests applying those tricks to your own mind as well as that of the bully.
For example, if the bullying is not affecting your personal safety or livelihood, Sutton suggests trying to see the humor in it (sort of like picturing all those people in the audience naked to get over stage fright). Or you might try being overly nice to the bully.
“Sometimes you just have to rise above it and kill them with kindness,” he said.
You can also try to look the bully in the eyes while they are being a jerk.
“You have much less empathy for human beings when you don’t see their face and don’t see their eyes,” Sutton said. “When you don’t have eye contact with someone, you’re much more likely to be nasty, and so it turns out eye contact can be very important.”
Coping with a chronic, toxic bully
What if you’re dealing with a chronic bully and it is completely disrupting your ability to enjoy your home or work? Then it’s time to bring out the bigger guns.
Make a clean getaway
Sutton’s first rule of surviving a toxic bully is escape, if you can. See if you can move your desk far away from the offender, or restrict your interactions with a toxic neighbor or avoid that unbelievably irritating soccer mom and dad. If that fails, try again. Can you find another soccer league? Can you move to another role in the organization?
Document every detail
Both Ni and Sutton say the most important thing you can do if you find yourself in an untenable situation with a chronic bully is to document the behavior. If this is at work, start by checking your company’s anti-harassment policies. They may have specific guidelines on how to report the bully’s behavior.
Write down exactly what happened when you get back to your desk, including exact quotes if possible. Were there any witnesses – even passers-by? Write down their names and if you are comfortable, ask them to document what they saw or heard. Add the time, location and any circumstances that led to the behavior. Do it every time the harassment happens and build a file.
Are there any emails, voice messages or other evidence that can help build your case? Collect it immediately and create a formal way to archive it until you’re ready to act. Be as professional as possible in your presentation of the events.
But be careful about taping the encounter with audio or video. Each state has different laws, with some being “two-party” states – which means you must have the permission of both the person being recorded and the recorder. Audiotape or videotape someone in one of those states and try to use it and you could be facing a lawsuit.
Documentation is effective outside of work too. Ni tells a story of a neighbor who smoked so often in close proximity to Ni’s house that the vapors entered his home. After numerous requests to get the person to stop their behavior failed, he began collecting bills for drape and rug cleaning and presented those to the neighbor, and suggested that if he didn’t pay he’d be contacting a lawyer.
“He hasn’t smoked near my home for three years now,” Ni said.
Get a posse
“Most bullies, most chronic bullies, pick on more than one person,” said Ni, who coaches clients and counsels Fortune 500 companies. “When victims are willing to band together it helps because there is strength in numbers.”
Fellow victims can help you document any abuse, share their own experiences, and convince management or the local condo association that the bully’s behavior is real and has to stop. That puts you in a greater position of power, and when you have that, said Ni, the bully will back off.
“Most bullies are cowards on the inside,” Ni said. “They find weaker people to pick on because they know they can get away with it. I would say nine times out of 10 when you confront a bully from a position of strength, they back off right away.
“This has been my experience a great many times,” Ni said, “both in dealing with aggressive people myself as well as helping my clients or my students deal with bullies.”
Sutton agrees. “When people fight back alone, it doesn’t work very well, but the bigger the posse, the more power and safety they have in the situation,” he says. “The successful efforts against everything from abusive Catholic priests to Harvey Weinstein are good examples.”