Bullying can be defined as follows:
use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force them to do something.
Bullying is an ongoing misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that causes physical and/or psychological harm. It can involve an individual or a group misusing their power over one or more persons. Bullying can happen in person or online, and it can be obvious (overt) or hidden (covert).
Bullying of any form or for any reason can have long-term effects on those involved, including bystanders.
Single incidents and conflict or fights between equals, whether in person or online, are not defined as bullying.
What we see emerge here are two important factors: power, and sustained abuses of power. This poses interesting questions for the types of bullying that appear to occur during people on the some horizontal plane of a power structure - for example, co-workers inside a business or peers inside a classroom.
That position of power is sometimes more complex than purely someone from a different hierarchal position.
The impacts of bullying are well-documented; Fear, psychological degradation, impact on self esteem, undermining a sense of security, for a start. What frames this impact is, of course, dependant on who is the recipient.
In particular, someone’s personal history (so other experiences with bullying, in other contexts) will have a large impact on the person’s ability to cope with being bullied, or may even make them more susceptible to bullying types.
A victim’s pre-existing resilience and well-being will also determine just how impactful the experience with a bully is. Maybe even whether the behaviour is defined as bullying or not.
The bully, by the same token, is also someone who has been shaped by multiple experiences, including behaviour modelling, and psychological distress - these are the things that build a bully in the first place.
Factors that create bullies include stress, time pressure, personality and learned defensive behaviours, a concern of receiving judgement, or bad outcomes that they are being held responsible for. The health sector is an obvious example of a bullying environment, in these regards.
Often, bullies emerge because it has been role-modelled and as a result, normalised. Either they have seen the impact of bullying in their home or in their workplace, in their childhood even, and seen positive outcomes as a result (increased power for the bully and increased likelihood that their agenda is met). Or they watched a parent accept poor behaviour and seen devastating circumstances which they do not want for themselves. They may adopt bully behaviour for these reasons, or perhaps even worse, because they have previously been exposed to it themselves, and it is a cycle they repeat, but with their role as victim inverted.
As a part of dealing with bullying, it becomes important to ask the following questions about determining the motivation:
1. intention of behaviour
2. behaviour of the person
3. behaviour of recipient
4. and their understanding/background
In work or familial hierarchical structures, there can be a murky difference between bullying and ‘teaching’ or exacting discipline. Is it acceptable to engage in this behaviour if it is normalised socially? And it is interesting that certain ethnographic groups, as well as older generations often find that a modern western concept of ‘bullying’ is actually a very normal part of how you maintain social cohesion in their own environments.
So, how then do we decide what is actually inappropriate behaviour?
Many people experience bullying, across multiple stages of their lives (indeed, whenever there is a perceived power structure, there will likely be cases of bullying). Who defines what constitutes “bad enough”?
Is bullying only when someone has been told they are a bully, but they continue to choose to behave in that way as a pre-meditated act? Is the essence of bullying behaviour conscious choices to exact power inappropriately- or can someone unconsciously bully someone else?
The waters are murky indeed, but what if you could actually stop the bullying by standing up to the bad behaviour. It is important to act if you notice it or experience bullying behaviours yourself- to try to limit the potential development or impact of these horrible, and often unfortunate and sad, situations.
Define the behaviour
Try to understand motivation behind the behaviour (assume it’s not the worst case)
Try to deal with the motivation issue if possible
You have the right to say that the behaviour is inappropriate
Talk to someone else about it - this will probably give you more confidence
If you can call out problematic behaviour courageously and quickly, before it escalates or repeats, you might be able to prevent the bully from appearing at all.
It’s worth keeping in mind that a label with such strong connotations as ‘bullying’ will probably elicit a strong reaction from the person you are confronting and will probably create a defensive environment in which they are less able to engage in a conversation.
Not doing something about bullying behaviour that you witness isn't appropriate either - for one, they may not know the impact of their behaviour and as a result continue it. If they do know that it is inappropriate, then intervention from outside sources may be one of the only ways to handle the problem.
It is, however, about stepping away from blame. It’s not the victim’s fault for failing to call it out (obviously in some circumstances it’s really difficult to assert yourself against a bully), but the bully is a product of particular circumstances themselves and is in need of their own help, too.
Has someone called you a bully? A bully creates a conflict situation that they will consistently win, at a cost. They don’t collaborate, and they don’t work with people well. They are often very alone. Most people don’t want to live like that.
Try to remember:
It’s not normal for people to be scared of you.
It’s not normal for people to do everything you say.
It’s not normal to inflict discomfort on people on a regular basis.
That’s not a normal way of socially engaging. There are other ways to make things work.