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The Bully Pulpit, Part IV: The Grand Bully, An Odd Illustration

Because I’ve been writing about bullying for the last few weeks, I’ve been noticing behavior which, although it may not seem so bad at first, can rise to the level of bullying if it’s repeated, consistent, or purposeful.

I’ve wondered, for example, if a person who has an ongoing practice of begging and wheedling could be considered a bully. These behaviors typically connote weakness or subservience, but based on the working definition of bullying from The Bully Pulpit, Part I: Out of the Schoolroom and Into the Boardroom?“if the intent is to intimidate, force compliance, or ensure that the subject feels powerless” — a whole host of passive-aggressive actions could be recognized as part of a pattern of bullying.

Watching a Bully in Action

Recently, while riding a train into New York City, I observed a set of behaviors that, in the context of this definition of bullying, held new meaning for me:

A woman of about 60 sat in the middle seat of two facing rows of seats. She had papers spread out on the seats on either side of her, and her very long, closed umbrella lying across the three seats opposite. The train got progressively more crowded at each stop, and at every other row, people moved bundles and nodded in acknowledgment as new arrivals asked for and took seats. At this woman’s row, people paused, looked at the carefully concocted barriers to seating, and moved on.

Whenever individuals lingered, eyeing the five seats that did not have a human in them, the woman held up her finger as if to say, “Just a minute — I’m in the middle of a thought that is really too important to pause for you right now; you’ll just have to be patient,” and she waited them out.

Pushing Back and Being Pushed

Finally a particularly persistent (or tired) mother and child just stood there. It took the woman an amazingly long time to put down the papers she was holding and move her umbrella over to her side so they could sit down. I wanted to applaud them. Her intention was to intimidate — as if to say, “What I’m doing is more worthy than your small human need to sit.” The mother didn’t bother to point out the woman’s bad behavior; her body language expressed, silently, that she and her child had rights in the situation.

When that mother and child got off the train, a grandmother with a child of about six sat down in their vacated seats. The little girl took the seat directly across from the woman, whom I now thought of as The Grand Bully; the grandmother sat on the aisle. The grandmother reached across the child and rested a package on the empty window seat.

In rather imperious tones, The Grand Bully said, “Can you put that somewhere else? I have to finish my exercises.” Without waiting for an answer, she picked up the package and handed it to the child, who then translated the request for her grandmother. The grandmother held the package in her lap for the remainder of the trip; there was clearly no point in asking whether it could travel with The Grand Bully’s papers on either of her adjacent seats.

No Happy Ending Here

The Grand Bully then proceeded to put one bare foot and then the other up on the opposite window seat until the trip was over. It is possible that she was doing some sort of crucial stretching exercises. It is also possible that she was in the midst of a mission to save the world. But it is most likely that she was making sure to give people as little respect or comfort as possible.

The Grand Bully used a combination of gestures, speech, tone, body language, and facial expressions to make her point and get what she wanted. The funny thing is that I can’t imagine that she would ever have behaved quite so badly toward any of the suited, young go-getter types who looked briefly at her and her moat of empty seats — but then again, she probably knew that they wouldn’t have the patience to wait until she made the seats available either.

Onward and upward,


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