“Bullying is the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively impose domination over others. The behaviour is often repeated and habitual. One essential prerequisite is the perception, by the bully or by others, of an imbalance of social or physical power. Behaviours used to assert such domination can include verbal harassment or threat, physical assault or coercion, and such acts may be directed repeatedly towards particular targets.” ~ Wikipedia
Being a fairly timid child in primary school, I was bullied here and there like many of us. I wasn’t bullied enough for it to traumatise me but I was bullied enough to know I can’t stand it. In high school, the school policy against bullying was draconian. Bullying a child enough to inspire a complaint would lead to either heavy punishment or expulsion.
However, despite all that protection, I still managed to encounter my fair share of bullying through high school. Ironically, my most memorable bullies were not students. One was a teacher and the other was a nun. I went to a convent school. Behind the everyday scenes of normalcy, those two tried so hard to make me miserable and even to get me expelled. It became so ridiculous that a senior teacher called me to her office one day and asked what exactly I had done to these women to inspire such behaviour. She told me it was abundantly obvious that what was being said about me was untrue but she couldn’t understand why it was being said at all. I didn’t either. I was a good child with a relatively clean record. I was a star athlete. My grades hovered comfortably between As and Bs. I couldn’t understand and I sobbed quietly in my chair. What chance did I have against older women who had authority? She then said something that changed my attitude towards bullies for the better forever. She said “Sometimes, you don’t have to do anything wrong to make yourself a target. When you become one, there will not always be someone there to stick up for you like we have done now. You must learn early to confront bullies on your own or become a perpetual victim.” She then went on to confront them on my behalf and the bullying ended. Later on that year, I became a prefect.
When I left school, that was one of the things I was relieved to leave behind… or so I thought. Fast forward to my working life. I have quickly come to realise that sometimes, the work environment is like high school but with money. The divas, the naughty ones, the brown-nosers, the smart workers, the A students, the ones who flunk out, the diligent ones, the nerds, the fashionistas, the hard workers, the wallflowers, the complainers, the ones who only walk on the straight and narrow and yes…. the bullies. They are all here.
A lady who is very senior in the firm and answers only to the Managing Partner suddenly took to verbally picking on me last year. At first I would just smile and keep quiet because I didn’t think it was malicious. She had something to say about any and everything I wore. If it wasn’t too tight, it was too short or too loose or too long or too bright or too dull. Every pair of shoes I wore was too high. As with every bully, once she realised, I didn’t respond, the bullying escalated. She started doing it only when there were other people around. “Chu, I see you are wearing hooker heels again. Clearly we can see what you do at night” was her favourite. It would often be followed by uproarious laughter from her.
It started to upset me a bit but I still thought she would stop if I ignored her long enough. Boy was I wrong. One day, I caught her in the office kitchen alone and I asked her very light-heartedly why she had an issue with everything I wore. She replied unnecessarily loudly “I have a problem with everything you wear that I can’t wear. If I can’t wear those heels then of course they are hooker heels.” Don’t even think she smiled while she said it. At this point I had disturbed the hornet’s nest. My hooker heels were announced everyday, anywhere and everywhere. It had to stop.
Sometime soon afterwards, I wore a form-fitting black dress to work. I know I looked smart because even my boss complimented me and she normally doesn’t notice anything short of an earthquake. I was standing in the passage with a few colleagues and true to form, my bully walked right up to me and yanked my knee-length dress at the hem with surprising force announcing “the office is not the place to wear mini dresses.” The fact that she actually touched me finally sent me over the proverbial edge. Despite the fact that she is twice my weight, height and age, I grabbed her wrist and I walked right up to her face and calmly told her if she ever touched me again I would report her to HR for harassment. And while we were on the subject she was never to comment or take issue with my clothes except through proper channels. If she had nothing good to say she could save me a lot of trouble but keeping quiet. I looked at her right in the eye and waited a moment for a reply. She gave a nervous laugh and for the first time in her life she remained silent. I was a little surprised. I let go of her arm and walked away.
She sent an email straight after saying she couldn’t imagine why I was offended as she has never commented on my clothes but in an any case “sorry.” Really now?! I replied with politeness that I did not feel that we both knew that wasn’t true and I would appreciate it if it stopped otherwise I would have to address it again. I thanked her for her apology. There were no further emails and the bullying stopped immediately.
She doesn’t speak to me at all now but I think I prefer that. I learnt that bullies are a part of life no matter how old we get. Luckily for all of us, they have the same traits no matter where we encounter them. Stand up to them once and they will move on. Their common mistake is assuming that because you are nice you are weak and therefore you are an easy target. One glimpse of strength and its game, set and match.