Bullies, Then and Now

I’d already started writing this when a wonderful blog landed in my Inbox. I’d been thinking about the ways life keeps tossing bullies in our path – just when we’re beginning to believe we’ve outgrown the past. Clearly, I’m not alone.

Back in 7th grade, I was frequently tormented by the mean and massive football player who sat next to me in Homeroom. I was shy, bookish and definitely not cool, having parents who eschewed everything that was considered fashionable in the 1960’s.

In junior high on Long Island, you had to have Pappagallos, low-cut flats that came in a rainbow of colors, were worn by all the popular girls, and that I was not allowed to wear because, according to my mother, they didn’t give my feet enough “support”. Instead I was doomed to clunky Mary Janes, which prompted endless witticisms from “Football Fred” ridiculing my old-lady clodhoppers.

Adding to my not-coolness was not being allowed to shave my legs. Having sparse, white-blond body hair I thought I could get away with this, but Fred never missed an opportunity to drop a pencil or notebook under my desk and retrieve it with a snarky whisper about my “spider legs”.

Happily, life goes on and we all grow up. Sort of. Because at my first job, I discovered a new species: the work bully.

My first boss, “Andy”, was an affable ex-military guy whose management style was a type of hazing designed to toughen me up. Although Andy wasn’t overtly insulting, he often withheld information that could make my job easier or more efficient. This resulted in a colossal waste of time and energy that, more than once, reduced me to tears of fury in the ladies’ room.

One of my early tasks as a junior art director was to recommend which artists we should contact for a particular job. I had no idea how to begin looking, and there was no Internet with which to research this. I asked Andy for direction and he told me to go figure it out. I suggested that if he’d simply tell me where the information was I’d never have to ask him a second time, but he walked away.

Hours later, I discovered that Andy already had files of cards from all the artists’ representatives, neatly catalogued by style from realistic to cartoon. He must have thought sending me on a wild goose chase would build character. Instead, it built resentment. We did, in the end, become good friends—once I was no longer working for him.

I next crossed swords with a burly, perpetually scowling television producer I’ll call Phil, who refused to partner with me on a commercial because I was too “junior”– never mind that it was one I’d written and it was therefore my responsibility to follow through.

Phil insisted he’d only work with my boss. After running up and down the stairs multiple times to relay this to my supervisor, who kept sending me back to negotiate further, I finally closed the door (hard!) to Phil’s office and said, “Look, I don’t want to work with you any more than you want to work with me, but we have a job to do so let’s get on with it.”

I never had trouble with him again – and I learned the important lesson that the only way to get someone to stop bullying you is to stand up to him or her and show them they don’t intimidate you. Even if you’re in your twenties.

I wish I could say that those were the only bullies I ever encountered. One of the worst was a poisonous co-worker at my last agency job. She ruled her stable of sycophants not by fear or obvious intimidation – she appeared to be friendly and fun – but by creating a merciless clique of who was “in” and who was frozen out. You could get on her s***list in a nanosecond for politely declining to drink on the job, as she did every afternoon beginning at 4 pm. Those who were “out” were viciously gossiped about, maligned to senior management and made so miserable that, years later, they still shudder when they hear her name.

Bullies, of course, reside in everyday life outside of work, too. There’s the woman who makes some guy’s life hell when he tries to end a relationship. The receptionist who won’t let you speak to your doctor. The guy in the Homeowners’ Association who insists you can’t replace so much as a doorknob without his permission. And the supermom at the PTO who tries to guilt you into doing her bidding by making you feel like a bad parent just because you have a full-time job.

Moral: Life is eternally 7th grade. But now you have the tools—wisdom, kindness, a good lawyer on speed dial—to fight back. And sometimes, growing up really is the best revenge.

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