I firmly disagree with the saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me.” Words can and do harm us. Unfortunately, some people intentionally use words as a means of intimidating and controlling others because they know just how hurting and harmful words can be. This is known as verbal bullying and it is, in my opinion, worse than physical bullying.
When a group of people engages in laughing and talking trash about a person or group of their peers, they are engaging in verbal bullying. When this group of bullies whisper and glare each time they are in the presence of the subject of their gossip, they compound the bullying by behaving in an even more rude and abusive manner.
There are those who attempt to mask their bullying (and insult the intelligence of their victim) by pretending to be complimentary. “Your nose is a bit large, but it balances out your ears.” - “Not many people can wear that color, but it doesn't look too bad on you.” – “Do your children speak better English than you?” - “For an overweight person, you don't sweat much.” Any who have been the recipient of a remark similar to those above knows that these phony backhanded compliments can sting as badly as a physical slap.
I have encountered bullies who have berated me, said unflattering things about me, and bluntly pointed out perceived faults with my personality, my family, or my appearance. Then, they attempted to justify their behavior by saying, “I’m telling you for your own good.” When their behavior was challenged they added insult to injury by accusing me of being too sensitive, not able to take a joke, or being narrow minded.
Mike McGreer's recent editorial on bullying brought back the not-too-distant memory of an incident that I experienced. I received a phone call from a person who assumed that I was the author of a letter to the editor in a local newspaper. This person strongly disagreed with what was said in the letter. The purpose of his call was to bully me into retracting the letter. The fact is, I wasn't the author of the letter so his ploy didn't work too well in this specific case. It did, however, highlight a common trait among verbal bullies; they often fail to check out their facts prior to attacking.
Verbal bullying comes in a variety of forms. Name calling, taunting, mocking, spreading rumors and gossip (in person or via email and Facebook), threats, whisper campaigns, laughing at others, spreading lies, and hate speech, (racially or ethnically motivated insults or comments meant to demean) are all forms of verbal bullying and every one of them is hurtful.
Not all cases of verbal sparing involve bullying. Many people, myself among them, enjoy using words as a means of joking with each other. They enjoy witty mutual name calling, swapping innuendos, using words/phrases with double meanings, and making remarks that challenge the mind a bit. I shutter to think how boring my life would be without this type of interaction. The difference in these exchanges and verbal bullying is in the relationship between the participants and the intent of the interaction.
Verbal bullying occurs when there is a real or perceived power difference; when one is attempting to intimidate another and use her/his power to exclude a person from his/her social, political, or community group. Bullying has no age, financial, cultural or social bounds. The major intent of bullying is to cause the victim distress in some way. Simply put, bullies seek power. The methods they use to get it may not differ, but each method is used to devastate and intimidate the victim.
If you are engaging in verbal bullying, please stop. If you are aware of verbal bullying, please ask the person engaging in this behavior to stop. If you know a child who is the victim of verbal bullying, please, please, please, step in and help them deal with the situation. The effects of verbal bullying lasts a lifetime. Unfortunately, all too often, a child who was victimized by a bully grows up to become one. Bullying is a learned behavior.