Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Five Words to Call Out a Bully

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

Recently, actress Jennifer Aniston had the chance opportunity and the courage to stand up to a bully. It may be hard for anyone to believe that Aniston could be the victim of bullying considering her stunning good looks, international fame, and resulting wealth, but she was often on the receiving end of nasty nicknames and comments slung at her by celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton. She describes how she accidentally bumped into him in a parking garage one evening and felt compelled to ask him one question comprised of five words. Those five words carried quite a bit of power, enough to make someone like Perez Hilton rethink his behavior. She asked him, “Why are you so mean?”

Perez Hilton spoke with talk show host Ellen Degneres about being called out for being a bully. Interestingly enough, Hilton says he doesn’t want to be perceived as a bully, and it was “…a big wakeup call that so many people perceived me that way.” He says he felt justified in his behavior because it wasn’t the “real him” doing the name-calling; it was a character. Degeneres points out to him that, “Kids look at [his bullying] and go, ‘Well, adults think it’s funny to make fun of other people; why can’t we make fun of other people?’”

There is so much to be learned from this situation. One is for adults to realize that kids do pay attention to what they do and how they treat other people. Whether or not someone is famous, whether or not someone considers him or herself a role model, kids learn social behavior by watching adults.

Another thing that is interesting to note is the rare glimpse into the way a bully’s mind works. Hilton himself said he found ways to justify his name-calling, and he never realized anyone actually thought of him as a bully. Parents, teachers, and even kids themselves can make good use out of this insight. Bullies may know on the surface that what they are doing is wrong, but if they can create a justification for it, then they are able to perceive their behavior as acceptable. They don’t think they are being bullies, either, because they have used pretzel logic to make their behavior feel okay.

Finally, I think Aniston has provided a great way to call a bully out by asking the simple question she posed to Perez Hilton. Asking, “Why are you so mean?” is a great way to be assertive (as opposed to aggressive, which is often met with further aggression). The question doesn’t draw attention to the victim directly, and it shows the bully that his or her behavior has been noticed and asks him or her to explain his or her actions. This question, delivered in a direct tone of voice, must be quite disarming to a bully. It’s possible that the bully will retort with some sort of snide answer, but hopefully it will be enough to give the bully pause at some point to reflect on his or her behavior.

This is a question that either a victim or a bystander can use to address a bully. This question subtly sends the message, “I know what you are doing. It’s easy to label. I’m calling you out on it. I won’t put up with it.”

This Hollywood story has a relatively happy ending. Perez Hilton has acknowledged his nasty behavior and vowed to improve, which he has done pretty effectively. Yes, he still likes to comment on juicy celebrity stories, but the tone of his blog has changed noticeably. It has been a long time since he has been truly insulting; he has managed to create a way to keep up the gossip without being quite so destructive. Bullies can change – all it takes is one good jolt to wake them up to what they are doing. Jennifer Aniston, by standing up for herself, gave all our kids one more tool to use to bring bullies down.

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