I’m a huge fan of the Evil HR Lady, Suzanne Lucas. She’s a great writer, her advice is always constructive, and she has zero patience for fools and whiners.
Before the holidays she advised a reader whose coworker who talked incessantly about religion at work. Her advice was to use the catch phrases “mmmm interesting,” “that’s nice,” and “that’s not true” when the coworker got going. This was great advice for that situation, and I thought it could translate beautifully to other situations where you have to interact with someone unpleasant but you can’t afford to scorch the earth when you respond.
Verbal bullying is a huge bummer, and when I’m on the receiving end of it or a witness to it my tendency is to completely shut down. I’m so appalled at the toxic bullshit that’s coming out of the other person’s mouth that I become paralyzed and I start dreaming that siren will sound and a red light will flash and then a metallic female voice will say “DANGER! SOCIAL CONTRACT BROKEN” and someone – maybe an actual superhero named Captain Awkward wearing a too-tight jumpsuit and a flowy cape – will come in and save me from the awkwardness.
Here is a short film about responding to verbal bullying in a subversive and awesome way:
Here’s what the Years of Therapy have taught me. You can save yourself. But you have to respond. Don’t just take verbal abuse, endless drama and complaining, concern trolling (“But I just say these mean things to you because I worry about you!”) or sexist & racist crap from people and assume that because you’ve frozen like a statue that they’ll get that they should stop talking. These people need to be told.
With strangers, it’s easy. Let me demonstrate.
Rude stranger on street corner: “Baby, why are you so fat?”
You: “Because every time I fuck your mother, she bakes me a pie.”
See? Easy. You’re never going to see that guy again, and if you do he’s going to think twice about opening his mouth and letting his stupidity show.
With people you know and have to interact with regularly, it’s not so easy, but it can be done. For example, what do you do when someone makes a racist or sexist joke? One of my favorite things to do is to make them repeat it and/or explain it.
Racist Joke Guy: “Super racist thing! Hardy har har!”
You: “Sorry, I didn’t hear you, can you repeat that?”
Racist Joke Guy: “Super racist thing again! Get it? Get it?”
You: “Sorry, still not quite catching it. Can you say again?”
Racist Joke Guy: “Super…racist…thing?”
You: “Okay, I heard it that time. I don’t get it, though. Why is that funny?”
At this point hopefully your racist friend has started to either become embarrassed or decide that it’s not worth pursuing and is ready to say “Never mind.” VICTORY! You have shown that you are not the audience for his act. But say, for the sake of argument, that this moron keeps going.
Racist Joke Guy: “It’s funny because all ____ people are like ____. Get it?”
You: “Oh. But all ____ are not like ____. Is that really what you think?”
Racist Joke Guy: “God, you’re touchy and have no sense of humor. Jeez, never mind.”
VICTORY. You can’t make anyone stop being a racist jerk, but you can teach people to stop saying stupid stuff around you. I should warn you that to make this work you have to keep all sarcasm and “tone” out of your voice – just keep sincerely asking for repetitions and explanations like you’re doing your best to understand it.
Back to the “hmmm interesting/that’s nice/huh/okay, thanks” method of defusing stuff, what you’re doing with these expressions is letting the person that you know that you heard what they said but not giving them anything to latch onto to keep the discussion going. Someone who won’t stop bringing up an uncomfortable topic or sharing “helpful” information or poking at things that are nobody’s business but yours is looking for an argument. They want to feel justified and important. They want to pontificate and force you into being the rude one when you finally snap. And sometimes the answer is to simply say “I completely disagree with everything you’re saying, so I’d prefer not to discuss that with you anymore” and if they keep bringing it up say “You’ll have to excuse me,” and leave the room. And then do that every single time they repeat the behavior. But if that’s not an option, try repeating vague benign phrases back at them until they go away. You’re teaching people how to behave around you. VICTORY!
How do you deal with verbal bullies? Do you need to tell someone in your life to STFU (politely)? Write to email@example.com. Names will be changed to protect those assholes you work with.