When I was in primary school, we had an ethnic boy who was really ‘disruptive’- which is one of the words frequently used back then to describe children such as he. He was naughty, and seemed to be of limited vocabulary which consisted mostly of the word ‘caca’, and he did all sorts of things we were both amused and horrified by.
By today’s standards, he’d probably have been labelled a bully, diagnosed with ADHD or some such medicated required condition.
Reality was in recollection he was an only child, mostly raised by his elderly grandmother, as both of his parents worked long hours. It was a time when most people had their mum at home, so we all felt a bit sorry for him. No doubt, the school investigated, we all continued along, nobody got upset or hurt and he continued to come to school without complaints.
When I was a teenager, I was the funny one who was labelled the ‘Class Clown’. Known for being chatty making all those around me laugh. It became my badge of honour to be moved from one desk to a corner, or from one class to another.
The teachers thought punishment would break me of my chatty habits, but it didn’t. In fact, it gave me more people to talk to which became a useful skill over the years.
I was the youngest of 5 children, and didn’t get much of a look-in when I was at home amid such a big family. At school I mastered seeking attention as I was both pulled in line for my shenanigans, and revered as I entertained all.
Of course, every comedian needs material, and I found it all over the place. My fellow students so often provided me with comedic fodder, and I used it to the hilt, all the while entertaining the masses. I thought I was pretty popular, and I seemed to be well liked.
I had friends in every class, and could barely walk down the corridor without multiple conversations starting as I passed.
Big parties back then were not common however if there was one I was always invited. I had a firm group of friends that mainly consisted of girls I knew from primary school, which grew as we met girls along the way. We always had a blast together, and loved each other to bits.
Years later, I was having my first a Facebook messenger chat with an old school mate and suddenly I had a vision of my school years.
The vision brought with it a stark realisation that what I had thought was humorous banter, might actually have been at someone’s expense, particularly that girl. And, given my wide circle of friends, I could have had lots of unwitting targets besides her.
Was I a BULLY?
The conversation became quite serious as I swallowed my pride, mustered up some courage, and asked her if she’d ever felt I’d mistreated her in school.
She seemed shocked that I’d ask such a thing, but I couldn’t ignore the movie in my mind. My friend said that we’d actually been good friends and she couldn’t imagine me upsetting anyone.
It made me feel a bit more comforted to hear that, but I couldn’t help but wonder why my mind had shown me such footage. Maybe I hadn’t damaged that friend but I wondered if the same couldn’t be said for others, which prompted lots of self-reflection. None of my friends have ever mentioned such an incident, but it doesn’t hurt to put myself in someone else’s shoes and imagine what it might have been like on the other end of my humour because even without ill intention, someone’s feelings may have been hurt.
Looking back with fresh eyes, I remember that for all my dramatics and crazy antics, I was very shy and lacking in confidence. Who isn’t at that age? The fun things I did, and chattering was my way of getting myself out and into the school community.
Just like everyone else, I wanted to be liked and accepted.
But most of the time, I actually didn’t want attention on me. I wanted to deflect it toward someone else, which is why I have such memories of using other people in my humour. I had body issues, and was getting used to my changing shape, growth, hormones, and was never as pretty as the other girls I knew.
One of my favourite subjects was drama, and out of school I was part of a musical theatre group. I loved escaping into a fantasy world and being part of a troupe, singing songs and being involved. I never auditioned for lead roles, and was content with ensemble parts and the occasional dance role. I auditioned and got one dance solo and loved my moment in the spotlight, but didn’t pine for more of that.
These days, I’m still shy in lots of situations, but still loud and over the top in others- but either way, I’m desperate to not be put on the spotlight or into uncomfortable situations. At any moment, I can be trying to overcome being shy with being outgoing, and it’s both confusing and exhausting.
On top of that, the vision I had, true or imagined, has stopped me in my tracks many a time, when I’ve been about to poke fun at someone, or use them to make a joke when trying to refocus attention away from me, or my awkwardness and on to someone else.
I’m more careful about what I say, and consider whether I would want someone to say something like that about me, in a small group or from a podium.
Unfortunately, it’s possibly changed me for the worse.
Now I’m so worried about putting noses out of joint that I’m overly careful.
That’s the way of the world these days, and it’s causing a lot of trouble.
I’m lucky though, because my friends say I did nothing wrong. Maybe I didn’t or maybe it’s because in Australia, we’ve always picked on each other and had a great sense of humour about it. The two went well together, and for the most part things were…apples.
In the last decade or so, it’s gotten out of hand. People still pick on each other, but the true blue sense of humour has gone from Australia.
Imagine now what it would be like to be that person, and in a new country, trying to get used to new customs and ways of life.
The thing about bullying is that it’s a new label for something that we didn’t previously care about. We knew how to laugh off a joke, or accept someone for his or her eccentricities.
We had names for people who came from overseas, all the while being called similar names, because we’d almost ALL come from overseas at one point or another. We all took it in our stride. In the secondary school I mentioned earlier, I was in the minority, being blonde and blue eyed and having been born to Aussie born parents. I was called a ‘skip’ by all the girls I called ‘wogs.’ And guess what they called each other? ‘Wogs!’ No one was upset by any of this, and it was all perfectly fine by all of us. Somewhere along the line since then, it became wrong.
We spent time getting to know each other and each other’s cultures, and we got to understand each other, and for some, the struggles it had taken to get here. We tried to learn each other’s languages, and swapped lunches- we always wanted theirs and they always wanted ours. Who would give away delicious pasta so that they could have a vegemite sandwich? These girls did!
The point was that we invested in each other, without judgements and assumptions.
When there was a disagreement or issue, we dealt with it. We didn’t need to bring in parents or teachers, and there was very little violence or drama.
I don’t think I even heard the word bully as a title until I was an adult. It just wasn’t used, and I wish society would revert to using it as sparingly as the worst swear word in the English language.
These days, it’s bandied around far too loosely, and mostly through a lack of understanding.
If everyone kept an open mind, as we did back then, half of the so called bullying cases we hear about now would never happen, let alone be broadcast all over social media as they so often are.
Instead, thanks partly to parents who are teaching their children to be weak little sooky la lahs, so called ‘bullying’ is on the rise.
The line of what is actually bullying and what is not has been blurred to almost incomprehensible levels. People barely have a clue what’s okay and what’s not, and are terrified of sharing a joke outside the walls of their own home, lest they be hastily branded.
And that’s bullshit.
Don’t get me wrong. Real bullying, where someone is targeted, and harassed in a mental or physical way, isn’t acceptable, but there are lots of things that happen before it gets to that stage. Recognising those and dealing with them early can prevent the real bullying from happening.
Let’s stop and break it down for a minute, and we’ll discuss what each of us can do, later on.
- What causes bullying?
Usually, it begins long before someone says or does something. Those actions seem to be a result of a judgement or assumption.
Australia is such a cesspool of cultures that it’s often hard to pick someone’s background, but generally people are quite happy to talk about where they come from, if the opportunity arises. For that to happen, everyone has to be open minded and start a conversation, rather than keeping their mouths shut, with minds racing toward a conclusion which may have no truth whatsoever.
Sometimes, people just need to get used to each other, and one person can find that easier to do than the other. If you become comfortable with someone quickly, it can mean that you’ll be more relaxed, and might be jovial with him or her much quicker than they are with you. That means that you’re out of sync, initially. Thus, it becomes likely that there’s a misalignment in communication between the two of you, which can lead to misunderstandings.
- Have we all become too sensitive?
Damned straight, we have. Someone making a joke isn’t necessarily bullying. It mightn’t be very funny, and could be in poor taste, but that doesn’t make it bullying.
You don’t have to assume that someone is out to get you if they have a little go at you. Their humour might not match yours, and equally, they might not be aware of your sensitivities. If it occurs to you that maybe you’ve found yourself not being
Try to think on the lighter side of life initially, and even give a little back! You might actually make a new friend, and you already get each other’s humour, which is a great way to start.
- What can I do about it?
Perhaps you could try having a conversation like, “hey, I actually don’t like it when you say x, y, z, so how about you give it a rest?’ At the very least, it might start a conversation about your expectations of each other, and the respect you require.
There might be a more subtle approach too, by talking about your life during a conversation. If it relates to the topic that they’ve been ‘ragging’ on you about, you’ll be educating them, and they might just realise that what they find funny, you find offensive.
Be patient, understanding and open minded when you meet people about what brings them to your life or workplace. You don’t know the path they’ve walked, and just getting out of bed and coming to work could be an achievement, particularly if they have an illness or disability that isn’t obvious to you. Assuming that because you can do something, so can they, is short sighted. Ask how they’re going, and offer help before you make a decision about them that might not be even close to fair.
Sometimes, incidents occur when people attack pre-emptively. It’s an aggressive form of self-defence, and can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings, and repeated behaviour, which, with some willingness to understand, can be diminished early on.
Having a different upbringing can mean that not everyone has the same knowledge, particularly of workplace norms, as you do. Something that might be quite normal in their country might be extremely inappropriate here. But they won’t know until you tell them, but be nice, and willing to explain it in a way that they’ll understand.
- Could you be partly responsible?
Letting someone think it’s okay to say something to you, and then complaining later on, can become messy. Understandably, if they’ve made a comment frequently and you’ve said nothing for ages, suddenly saying you don’t like it can cause confusion, and doubt about the relationship making things uncomfortable for both of you.
If you think that what they’ve said is the sort of thing that could get out of hand later on, you would ideally say something now.
If someone’s joke wasn’t your type of humour or was derogatory, you could always highlight that what they’ve said wasn’t very funny, and you’d rather they didn’t say it.
Workplaces are rife for supposed bullying claims and if you look around most workplaces are also chock full of people of diverse personalities, ages and heritages.
Being considerate of each other’s space is essential. For example, if you recognise that playing loud music from your desk will disturb those around you who are working quietly, is a good start to maintaining workplace harmony. Talk with your colleagues and reach a compromise, rather than doing what you want and letting resentment build.
Failure to do so could lead to your colleagues making small remarks as subtle hints to you, which you might find snappy or rude in their repetition. However, they might actually be trying to tell you something without coming right out and saying it.
Jokes about your heritage or taste might actually be about the aromatic food you bring to work which might overpower their food and take over the workplace. It could be that they’re trying not to insult you and therefore, they’re making a joke rather than focusing on your food. Perhaps their communication skills aren’t great but it doesn’t make it bullying.
- The Media and Your Children
Repeated, continuous, escalating behaviour can be bullying but almost every week we hear about more so called incidents of bullying which are no more than parents amplifying the situation by their need to protect their children.
Children do need to be taught what’s acceptable in terms of how other people treat them, but by the same token, they need to be taught how to treat others.
Parents should lead by example and not be heard bitching about other people and carrying on about what happens or bullying other people. There are things which young children don’t need to be told, and should not witness.
They’re watching and listening make no mistake about it.
It seems that the same people who were so relaxed and jovial when I was younger, have grown up into complete stiffs who can’t take a joke and are raising their kids to be offended by every little thing, and to speak up at the slightest sign of upset.
If parents take everything to heart, and are quick to comment about and label other people’s behaviour as bullying, so too, will their children.
By the same token, if it’s your child who’s being a little turd and hurting others (feelings or body), do something about it. Assuming that they’re a little angel all the time doesn’t help anyone, and if you need help wrangling them or training them, ask for help, there’s plenty out there.
- Put Down your Gavel, and Open Your Mind
Keeping the lines of communication and your minds open will help everyone. By trying to understand those around us, we can all learn and be enriched.
Just as you have a history, so do other people. True bullies are often the people who need the most help in life. Taking a moment to try to understand their behaviour might be beneficial to both of you. Perhaps they’re lonely and need a friend, and don’t have good communication skills, or don’t want to appear vulnerable. Just as my primary school mate needed some support and understanding, rather than to be vilified, so too, might these people.
The reason they’re turning their attention to you could vary, as when I was using other people for my comedy routines without any ill intent, but jumping to conclusions won’t help. Assuming that they’re targeting you, and retaliating or taking it to heart won’t help either of you, as assumptions are often how escalations occur. While you’re thinking that old wounds are being reopened, and that your ghosts are coming back to haunt you, they might just think they’re being funny, or are trying to be your friend.
In turn, this will help you to move on from the incident without assuming each future joke you don’t find funny is actually an attack.
- Bring back community
Incidents don’t have to get as bad as they sometimes do if people would just look out for each other and talk about things sooner. Gone are the days when we live in a community, now it’s more ‘each to their own’. We’re lonelier and looking for relationships but we’re constantly on the defensive and terrified that we’ll be hurt, so we strike. It doesn’t have to be that way, if we would all be open minded and welcoming. Consider others’ feelings and what they’re going through and be welcoming toward new people in your life.
Was I a bully? Or was I a teenager who needed guidance on how to socialise, and patience to come out of my shell, just like all the other teenagers I knew? Was that boy a bully? Or was he living a tough life from a young age and trying to fend for himself and figure out his place in the world?
If our fellow schoolmates had labelled each of us a bully, how would our lives be different? I’d say it would be vastly different, as it is for those who are hastily labelled nowadays.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s not enough understanding, and far too much finger pointing. If you put yourself into their shoes, you might see someone who’s asking for help, trying to make friends, and fit in, keen to bond, and perhaps, escape a reality they would like to leave behind.
This moniker is not one that is shed easily. Just as I recall that boy, perhaps someone has a story about me, told from their perspective. However, if they’d also called me a ‘bully’ and told other people that I was, that would be a label I’d still have, into adulthood.
Can you imagine trying to make my way in life with the crippling stigma that the word ‘bully’ has these days? It would be almost impossible. If society in Australia keeps going this way, it will only get worse. Unless people are more careful about the way they think, act and the choices they make. Words have power, careful how you use the word ‘bully.
Marie-Louise Pawsey aims to help people to live better lives by understanding each other, being more considerate and to live together in harmony. She helps people to fit into Australian society by teaching them Aussie Life Lessons in workplaces, clubs and in one-on-one sessions. You can find her at: www.lifestylin.com.au