Bullying Followup #1

The trouble with writing constantly about teenagers as though they are people is that they inevitably talk back, also as if they are people, and then you have to have yourself a think. I got an amazing letter from a kid this week about the bullying stuff, heavily excerpted below, and apparently my response to her response went over well, which is good. Mostly, I was just amazed at my own blind spots, which is always gratifying.


…I don’t really know if this is something even appropriate to even do, but they don’t have a comments section for the recaps and there’s something on my mind regarding your recap that’s been bugging me a lot. As a disclaimer, I’m really sorry if this is something that’s not acceptable to do or anything, but then again… you wouldn’t put your email for the public to see online if you didn’t want people to email you. Before you freak out, I’m not creepy or anything I promise… I’m just a fan of your recaps on televisionwithoutpity.com and I read something tonight and I don’t know what to make of it.

“If you’re going to be the kind of person who gets bullied, and you can’t handle it, you need to stop being that person.”

I don’t buy [this] at all … really want to understand what you’re saying here because I think it could really mean something to me if I understood it.
For the past three years of high school I’ve been bullied. It’s not obvious bullying though, which is why my case, I think, is kind of an exception to some of your argument. I am a genuinely nice person and I get bullied for it. I get harassed because I’m too nice of a person to defend myself when others make fun of me. When there’s a disagreement I find it easier to just go along with whatever the other person wants because they should get what they want rather than causing a huge scene. When people make fun of me, I don’t defend myself because I don’t want to make the other person feel unhappy… I just take it because I’m a good person and I don’t want to create a big deal out of it. That’s just the person that I am.

…You say that whatever I’m being bullied for I should change. How can I change my disposition to be nice? Maybe I’m interpreting your argument wrong. I just feel really unclear and I hope that maybe you could do me the favor of clarifying that.

Once again, I’m sorry if I seem really stupid or if this is inappropriate… I don’t mean to be annoying. I just really want to know what you meant because it’s bugging me.


I mean, what do you say? Obviously a sweet kid, a smart kid. A girl who deserves applause for not just plugging her ears when she got to a part that sounded like bullshit, which is more than 99% of us are willing to do. I just kind of stared at the screen for awhile and wondered how much and what kind of danger this neat girl’s fire was really in. Trying not to count the apologies, qualifiers, passive-voice and the rest of it like I was going to serve her an itemized list at the end of our conversation.

Because the kind of person who takes that statement apart — and I’ll grant, the original ranterview was a little on the unstructured side, because I was trying to leapfrog questions and draw an emotional through-line — and honestly asks, “Are you being a dick or what am I missing,” well, that’s the kind of person I want reading my writing. You know? Almost entirely 100% of the time, an email asking for “clarification” is really just being passive-aggressive and calling you out without actually doing it. But not this lady, no. So I was cowed, and maybe that’s why the reply was blunt, but I thought either way it was worth preserving here, since the bullying thing seemed like such a valid conversation the first time around, last week:


I think that where the problem comes in is that we have different definitions of being “nice.” I’m not saying this applies to you, necessarily, but I will tell you about my friend [J]. He is smart, and strong, and I admire him in a lot of ways, but he has a lot of problems about being “nice.” 

Everybody wants people to like them, of course. (I do too, probably more than most people.) But what I see J doing is thinking that by not having an opinion of his own, or by being quiet when he shouldn’t be quiet, or agreeing with things that he doesn’t agree with, it short-circuits in the end. He is resentful, because he gave away his own power — and it didn’t even work! People don’t like him more because he is quiet, they don’t like him any more because he agreed with them, and they certainly don’t like it when he comes out resenting things after the fact. 

He’s very interested in being The Good Guy. The guy that doesn’t make waves, the guy that doesn’t make people angry or disagree with them, even when they’re wrong. The guy who knows the right answer, but doesn’t always say it because it would make other people feel stupid. I know he feels bullied. I know he feels bullied personally by me, because I don’t know if you know this but I can be kind of intense, and that’s a bad mix. I am not a very good friend to J, at all, which is especially gross considering how much I love him. But also, it wouldn’t matter, because he’s already gotten himself into that position most of the day. Sometimes just asking him to form an opinion makes him feel bullied — because he doesn’t want to be the Bad Guy  who said No.

That’s not being nice, in my opinion. That’s being weak. That’s holding your own image of yourself as the Good Guy, or the Nice Girl, above relating honestly with other people. I think that a lot of our society, and the ways we are raised, give us the idea that not having opinions, or never saying no, is the way to make people like you. 

But you know that this isn’t true. You wrote to me that it isn’t true. It isn’t working.

What I see is a situation where you get to be the Good Guy, because you’re “always nice,” and if it doesn’t work out — that’s everybody else’s problem. You don’t ever have to risk disappointing anybody, or getting anybody mad, or starting any confrontations, because you’re always being “nice.” There’s nothing for them to get mad at!

Our culture raises us, especially young women, to think they’re doing the right thing when we do this. That Nice Girls are good, and Not-Nice Girls are bad. But the definition of “Nice” that is used for that idea is really gross, and wrong, and old-fashioned, and nasty. It’s designed to make you hate yourself, and to keep you small, and to keep you quiet. 

And then you get the reward, for following along: You get to be the victim, because you didn’t offer your opinion and they didn’t ask. You get to feel like you have the moral upper hand, because you’re “nice” and everybody else is not-nice. You’re the winner. You’re the victim.

And what I was writing about in the recap is the idea that any time you see yourself as the Victim, you need to stop what you’re doing and look at your own ability to change the situation. Because nobody ever makes us crawl, and nobody makes us feel bad without our consent. And I will tell you another thing, [Lady], and I hope that you don’t think I’m being a jerk or that I don’t understand:

Nobody was ever too kind. Nobody ever got bullied because they were too kind, nobody was ever victimized for their compassion. Ever. 

And what that means to me, is that you need to think about the difference between “nice” and “kind.” “Nice” is passive and lazy and cowardly, and thinks only about itself. “Kind” is active and strong and thinks aboutother people. I think you should remove the word “nice” from your vocabulary for a little while, because my reply would be that — whether or not you want to hear it — you’re not a special case: You’re just like everybody else. 

We all were brainwashed to be “nice.” We all were taught that we need other people to feel okay about ourselves. We all were taught that popularity is the most important thing, and that being “nice” is a good way to get there. But it’s not true. None of it is true. You have to find a place of your own, to stand on. Even if it’s just the ground underneath your feet, you have to know that you own it, and you don’t owe anybody else for it. 

So yes, that is the thing you have to change about yourself, but it’s just a dictionary definition in your head that needs to change: That “nice” is the opposite of “strong,” and you’re not any more “kind” than you would be otherwise. Nobody can be expected to respect you if you don’t show respect for yourself, and that starts with having convictions and standing by them, showing character and strength, and remembering to be kind. You can do those things and still be true to yourself.

You are a smart person, and you have good intentions. It’s nice to see you thinking, and curious, about this kind of stuff, and I hope you read these words in the spirit that they were written, because I’m not trying to be rude, or condescending or bossy or whatever. I am impressed that you wanted to get more into that sentence, it means a lot to me — I hope this helped, whether or not you think I’m right about the rest of it. Good luck!

Jacob


Moral of the story? Don’t write me fanmail or you might get some words back, I suppose. Certainly her response was intensely gratifying on a whole other level. Either way, a helpful reminder that the shorthand you use throughout your mental day doesn’t always come across — and that’s not really because people are lazy, or at least, not as often as you’re/ I am apt to assume. It only makes you smarter when you get to go back and look at what you said and why, and fill in the gaps, but you often have no reason to do that. Unless, apparently, you’re in the habit of corresponding with precocious young girls.
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8 thoughts on “Bullying Followup #1

  1. Fantastic piece, as usual. ITA, she is using the word “nice” when what she's really doing is acquiescing to the personalities and actions of those around her. Somewhere along the line, she learned that giving in meant being “nice”. Not ruffling any feathers. There is a time and a place for that, but it should never be one's defining character.

    High school is no piece of cake, and it's not supposed to be. Kids are still learning, beginning to figure out who they are and what they stand for. But if they don't at least begin to learn it then when they are adults working with/for other people, the ones who are REAL assholes, they will be eaten alive.

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  2. I WAS this girl in high school. I recognized that instantly, just through the tone of her email to you — in between making her point and asking her questions, she had to keep apologizing for writing in the first place. I used to be just like her (I still sometimes write excessive exclamation points, 'pleases' and 'thank yous' into work emails because without them I'm afraid my words will come off as kind of bitchy…to the best of my knowledge, this is a girl thing…)

    The truth is that it's really, really hard to get out of this people-pleasing, approval-seeking “nice girl” mindset. For so long, it was the only personality that I had, not just because I wanted other people to like me, but also because I didn't think they'd like the 'real' me – the one under the polite, smiling surface. It wasn't until I was in college that I discovered being the 'nice girl' really gets you nowhere. But that's a long, hard journey to take. Before you can stand up for your own convictions and opinions, you have to believe that your own convictions and opinions are WORTH something – that you're worth something. And that's the crux of the problem – so many teen girls don't think they're worth much of anything at all, and don't realize how wrong they are until way too late.

    I obviously can't say with any real authority that my situation is identical to this girl's, but I can say that the journey from 'making other people like you' to 'actually liking yourself' can be a long, hard one to go through. And being bullied, or just peer-pressured by other girls and even guys (another situation where the inability to say 'no' to anyone can have unfortunate consequences) doesn't help the situation. But it seems to me that you touched on the answer beautifully – be compassionate, be kind, and truly think about others. That will manifest in good feelings, and when you feel good about yourself, that will give you the first courage to stand up for yourself (and others). Which is paramount. Because the world is full of assholes – that doesn't end in high school – and none of them will care if you're 'nice.' When they say 'It Gets Better,' they don't mean that people get better, they mean that YOU start feeling better about yourself – and then, from that point, what people say about you matters less and less. You can see bullies for what they are and just brush them off. (Or call them out when they cut in front of you in lines – that can be cathartic too, and something it took me 23 years to learn how to do!) Once you have the power to do that, everything does get totally better.

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  3. there's one small addendum i would make to your point. sometimes it's inappropriate and even bad to respond to a bad situation by asking how you can change. it works, it's the best thing, when appropriate and that's the sort of thing you're talking about (especially things like high school, that you have no choice in). if anything, people-pleasing is the inappropriate version of changing yourself for a situation. this may be overly hair-splitty, but it's another thing i took forever to learn.

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  4. But what if by “nice” she meant those same sweet qualities that made you pay attention to her mail in the first place? Her natural urge towards accord in pursuit of her goal is evident, and laudable. These seem like the qualities that make you vulnerable in school, because they broadcast vulnerability, because they stem from actually being vulnerable. I mean, unless you come in armed to the teeth with education or experience or genius at diplomatic interaction.

    Aren't there prices to pay in the kind of metamorphosis you're suggesting that ultimately make us worse people? Like, if this Lady adopts what you say, won't she stop writing the kinds of emails you love?

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  5. She's not being nice. She's being invisible, or at best a talented mimic, becoming what other people want. Trouble is, you always screw up what you think other people want, because you're not them and you don't really know. You're just guessing and if you were all that good at reading social cues in the first place you wouldn't be where you are.

    I am hyper-aware of the feeling of the room, all the time, because learning to read a room was how I survived. But surviving isn't living, and your distinction is a good one. Nice is passive. Kind is active, so do something. Be kind.

    I wish my 14-year-old self could read this post. I'd have had a whole different high school life.

    A.

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  6. You know whom your Lady makes me think of? Alicia Florrick. Probably because I just burned through all of Season 1. But she's another thoughtful, intelligent woman who was raised to set a high standard on rules and playing nice and finds herself trapped by all that. I like the parts of your recaps best that focus on how she busts (or doesn't) bust out of that mold. Maybe the Lady should read them, too.

    The best thing about high school is that it's a testing ground for social lessons that matter throughout your life. And they're painful in the way of all good lessons. But you can drop the people who taught you those lessons the second you're out of there and choose people who enrich your life to fill it.

    I was bullied in my first job (and this after bullying in middle and high school — sometimes lessons take a long time to learn). I had a direct report who had no other staff but me. It was she-said-versus-she-said. I have never gone home from work so unhappy and upset as I did from that job. That said, I definitely did things that made it easier for her to treat me that way. I did learn how not to be that person, but not quickly enough to stay there. I changed jobs to get away from her and had better things happen because of it.

    I agree bullying is a dance and the behaviour of the bullied and bullier both contribute to it. But sometimes you have to cut your losses and get out because it doesn't matter anymore what you`re changing or not changing. Sometimes the pattern established is so toxic it has to be broken. Especially when institutionalized power imbalances are involved.

    I agree with Athenae that having these types of conversations would have helped a lot when I was younger. And yet, they probably wouldn't, because on some level we all have to learn this kind of crap by living it. And the people in our lives — parents, teachers, bloggers, whoever we`re listening to — can`t give us a pass past the experience.

    So that`s my bullying screed.

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