He was aggressively staring at me, so I stared back. He refused to break eye contact, so I held his gaze. All around us, the meeting continued. But there we were, locked in our own small “eye war” during the middle of a work discussion. My body lapsed into its typical stress response: heart racing, a rush of acid up the back of my throat. Hang tight, I told myself, and for some time, I did. But then I broke and looked away. And cursed myself for doing so.
We don’t like each other. I consider him a bully, and he considers me a…well, I can’t read his mind. That’s one of the inherent problems with bullying: It’s sometimes difficult to know which side of the story to trust. Is he a real bully, or am I just being whiny and sensitive, overreacting to one of the hot-button topics of our times? If I call him a bully, am I just labeling him, and therefore being a bully myself?
All of this ran through my mind as I tilted my head, observed him, and considered what to do next. I’d been counseled by friends to look him in the eye, interrupt the meeting, and ask, “Is there something I can do for you?” Because the wisest thing to do with bullies is to call them on it. Bullying is sustained by silence or an abdication of responsibility, and it’s perpetuated by indifference, by people who look away.
But I had done just that, and my cowardice surprised me. As I have guided my kids through childhood—through the physical bullying during their early years and the electronic version of it in their teens—I’ve always cautioned them about giving up their power as well as about unfairly exerting their own. But overt bullying is obvious and deeply problematic, and in the too-frequent news of Facebook harassment that leads to suicides, this particular aspect of human behavior is a big deal. Humans can be cruel, and the results can be astounding.
Sitting in that meeting, my own advice suddenly seemed so silly. I had underestimated the courage it takes to hold an angry person’s gaze. I had forgotten that bullying can be scary. I had been surrounded by lovely people for so long that I had forgotten the unlovely types still exist. I had forgotten that some people want to exert power, some people can be jerks, and some people can be downright base. And that’s why I sometimes wish I were in a position of power. But I’m not. And those who are—well, sometimes they’re not, either.
“Gaslighting” is a widely used term these days. It comes from the play and movie Gaslight, in which a husband flicks a house light on and off and then teases his wife for observing it, thereby making her think she is insane and ultimately achieving his sinister goal of having her admitted to a mental hospital.
In real-world gaslighting, bullies do something malicious to create a reaction. When the targets comply, the “gaslighters” make them feel uncomfortable and insecure about their responses. If the poor souls feel absurd or start to second-guess themselves, the bullies have gained even more power. The term once described an extreme form of bullying; now, it’s become commonly used in clinical and research literature.
In a recent Huffington Post article, writer Yashar Ali argues that this type of bullying can be seemingly innocuous, as simple as saying, “Oh, can’t you see I’m just teasing?” As unthreatening as this might appear, the speaker is making the complainer feel ridiculous. Although both men and women can be bullies, Ali argues that women in particular are susceptible to gaslighting; it’s much more common in our culture to place our emotional burdens on the shoulders of women. “It’s a whole lot easier to emotionally manipulate someone who has been conditioned by our society to accept it,” he writes. “We continue to burden women because they don’t refuse our burdens as easily. It’s the ultimate cowardice.”
I hate to play the gender card, but in this case, Ali’s take seemed right. My bully’s behavior was directed at women. I couldn’t imagine him addressing males in the same way that he spoke to females. Even so, I remained uncertain. Was I just imagining it? Was the stare just a stare, or was it more?
Like everything in life, the more you start paying attention, the more you see. I started to take notes. After quietly observing him for months—barking at people, staring them down, red-faced and angry; interrupting, insisting on his way, and publicly belittling people when he didn’t get his way—I concluded that he was, in fact, a bully. I could see it in the way people braced when he started to speak, how they clammed up when he shot them a glance.
This helped me to redefine my awareness of what actually constitutes bullying. I realized it’s not only negative eye contact, aggressive body language, or verbal barking. Bullying is also doing things such as sabotaging or undermining peers’ performance by silencing them, making them unwilling to put forth ideas or to simply attend meetings. Even more troubling was how our system was set up to enable it.
By looking closer, I might have noticed too much—because then I felt trapped. Should I choose ethics or ease? Should I let it go—or try to do something about it?
It’s regrettable, maybe even unforgiveable, to accuse someone of something they’re not guilty of, and I asked myself again and again: Was this coming from a hypersensitive place? What were my motivations? Was it better to confront him directly, or, given that people had already unsuccessfully tried that, was I better off going over his head?
I finally decided I really did care that he was making everyone’s life unpleasant. I really did think his behavior was unreasonable. I really did think it mattered. So I let the appropriate people know about the objectionable behavior I’d witnessed and experienced. I decided to limit the amount of time I’d have to deal with him in the future. And if I did have to, I swore I’d hold his gaze or interrupt the meeting if necessary.
I still worried a bit. I had to embrace the fact that in our culture, there’s not much to be done about bullies. Or rather, not much is being done about them. That’s why I ultimately decided to write a letter to a higher-up about his boorish behavior. Yes, I was officially a tattletale. But I chose this route because I wanted to have a clear conscience and stand up for what I believe.
It was the least I could do: to make sure the right people were aware of the problem. I also knew my letter would remain on file. But I’m not naive: He might continue bullying, and those in power might continue to let it happen. Maybe my letter didn’t accomplish much, but in my mind it accomplished the biggest thing of all by keeping me from being part of the silence. That’s why, the moment I mailed it, I felt a deep sense of relief. Because I had finally, in my own small way, in the most appropriate manner possible, stared down a bully.