How to stop subtle bullying behavior.
August 5, 2010 9:51 AM   Subscribe

How to stop bullying in a friend/business relationship?

Anonymous because the person in question might know my Mefi handle.

I've been friends with this person for two years, awhile ago we started a business together. A good person, but abrasive at times, however lately it has turned into a bullying behavior.

That person would make disparaging comments about my person, but in a veiled way, coming off as a friendly ribbing, not an outright put-down. For instance that person would make comment about my abilities or appearance with positive-negative reinforcement (in that order), building me up then tearing me down. But in a really subtle way, however it gets repeated in nearly every turn of conversation. When I change the subject or ignore it, that person would repeat it until I react (usually with annoyance/frustration). It's difficult to call that person out on it, because I tend to realize what was happening after the fact. Also again, it's done in friendly manner, so that person usually insist that it wasn't meant that way.

Personally, I believe that it's immaturity and control issue and that person is not completely aware of it as I've done similar things in my younger days (the partner is 6 years younger than me).

It didn't happen overnight and I've since realized that I've been enabling it. This hasn't turned into a full-blown problem yet, but at this rate it will. So what is the best way for dealing with those really subtle, veiled disparaging comments that are difficult to catch in the act?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
"Anonymous because the person in question might know my Mefi handle."

I wonder if it might have been more effective to post this question non-anonymously. Basically, it would probably be helpful to say what you have said here. Posting non-anonymously might have given him the opportunity to see your side of your interactions without confronting him directly, especially since it's not a full-blown issue yet.
posted by nickjadlowe at 10:00 AM on August 5, 2010

Yes, the direct approach is to simply state your concerns and add that if the situation continues you will want to dissolve your business partnership since it has become too unpleasant for you. The indirect approach is for you to do exactly the same thing, making veiled disparaging remarks of your own, as a hint. Of course, some people don't take hints.
posted by grizzled at 10:07 AM on August 5, 2010

Push back, in the moment. And don't over analyze what happened previously. You might be making more out of it than exists.

As for insisting it wasn't meant that way, ask the friend to stop doing it anyway. If they can't then it's time to move on to other friends and business partners (a combo fraught with hassles anyway).
posted by wkearney99 at 10:11 AM on August 5, 2010

Posting non-anonymously might have given him the opportunity to see your side of your interactions without confronting him directly, especially since it's not a full-blown issue yet.

What, and match one passive-aggressive blow with another? I think that's just going to add to the drama, not help solve.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:16 AM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

There are a couple of ways to play it:

1) Play his game. I've done that with dorky jock types at the office - like sales people - who just don't get that what they're doing is obnoxious to a lot of people. They will suddenly love you, you will be the guy that can take the joke.

2) Deadpan it. "I'm sorry, I don't get it." "Is that a joke? I can't tell, it's not funny, so I wasn't sure." "Is that supposed to be funny?" (last one not defensive, with a big eye roll)

3) Ignore it. That's the hardest one. I usually combine ignoring it with #2. "Let's talk about the new chairs we need to order for the office." "Well, I thought we'd get these, except you'll need to get the super XL!" *pause, puzzled look* "I don't get it." "You need the super XL!" "I'm sorry, I really don't get it, I don't think there are sizes with these chairs (pick up catalog and look carefully)" Then you'll probably get a "Never mind, you have no sense of humor" which you use to transition into "Now, again, back to the chairs, I've identified three potential vendors..."

Sometimes you just have to say "I heard you the first three times. The comment isn't funny. Can we move on?" "You don't have a sense of humor/you're uptight/etc." "Why - yes, yes I am. thank you! moving on!"

Your lack of reaction will mute the volume on the immaturity.
posted by micawber at 10:20 AM on August 5, 2010

Push back without worrying about saying the exactly correct thing.

Say, "Stop doing that. Stop making disparaging comments about my person, in a veiled way, that come off as friendly ribbing. Don't comment about my abilities or appearance with positive-negative reinforcement (in that order), building me up then tearing me down. It's getting under my skin and it's poisoning our business relationship."

Keep expressing it in your own terms and don't get drawn into sparring with the person in the manner that their most comfortable with.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:25 AM on August 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

I spent way too much of my childhood and teen years letting bullies (often friends) get away with their shit. Sometime in my early 20s, this changed and I started them on it (certainly the ones I felt any affection for). Now, three decades later I can say that taking such action definitely saved a few of my longest friendships. The difference is, it generally wasn't me getting bullied back then; it was third party others. But the fact is, I made the call outs and they worked.

Nobody thinks of themselves as a bully. It's behavior that generally comes from fear, inadequacy, narcissism. That is, we become so absorbed in our own experience and actions (entirely justified in our own minds) that we don't see how they're going overboard and negatively affecting others. Getting beyond this is part of the maturing process. Be blunt with your friend. Help him/her grow up.
posted by philip-random at 10:25 AM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Say it straight - "Can you stop talking to me like that?"

Make them understand that they're crossing the line and you're not willing to put up with it any more. If it's a joke, then it's not funny. If they don't mean it, then they shouldn't say it.

Escalate as necessary:
"I'm not happy being talked to like that."
"Don't talk to me like that."
"Don't talk to me."
"Fuck off."
posted by Lorc at 10:26 AM on August 5, 2010

What, and match one passive-aggressive blow with another? I think that's just going to add to the drama, not help solve.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero

I agree dealing with the problem face to face is best, but the OP is posting because he/she has had trouble doing that in the past. I took it to mean that other suggestions were being sought. Of course, I may have misinterpreted the question. Also, I viewed my answer as more passive-defensive as opposed to passive-aggressive. There is a difference, both in motivation and effect, particularly when both a friendship and a business relationship ideally would be maintained.
posted by nickjadlowe at 10:27 AM on August 5, 2010

Well, the more it starts to bother you, the better you'll be at "catching them in the act", so thing about what you can say so that you'll be ready when that fleeting opportunity arrives. You'll want to be calm (not emotionally upset by "a little friendly ribbing") but insistent. I'd say there's not a good way to address something that happened yesterday, last week, or even this morning - your recollection of hte conversation is bound to be nothing like theirs. You have to just crank up your awareness until you recognize the early stages of one of those conversations, and address whatever's going on "right now", perhaps witout even mentioning that this isn't the first time - if they can deny that it's ever happened before, that takes strength out of your claim that it's happening now, so don't even go there.

"Have you noticed that we get a lot less accomplished when we start talking about (my big butt)? Aside from the fact that it's not a nice thing to say, you're really not helping anything. Let's get this programming done."
posted by aimedwander at 10:32 AM on August 5, 2010

Sometimes, it helps to just come out and say it. Quote the actual compliment/insult when you do because that will help. Sure, it won't be the easiest conversation to have, but it works.

Too often, people try to find a nice way to have a difficult conversation, or they try to find a way to not have a conversation at all while still getting their point across. They try to drop hints in hopes the person will understand. Once in a while, that approach works, but more often than not, it just makes matters worse because the person dropping hints will think he dealt with the problem, when really, that's not the case.

Your friend may not even be aware s/he is being rude. In fact, your friend may be treating you that way because s/he trusts you. Hey, I'm not saying it makes sense. People do weird things all the time.

Be direct.
Quote the compliment/insult.
Explain why you want that behavior to stop.

Best of luck!
posted by 2oh1 at 10:54 AM on August 5, 2010

P.S. Remember to not be rude while having that discussion. Your friend may have no idea how rude he or she has been.
posted by 2oh1 at 10:54 AM on August 5, 2010

Let's call your buddy Joe, because it's more fun to read with a name. Wait until he does this -- and anticipate it by assuming every compliment is going to be followed with a slam, so you're ready when it does -- and say something like this:

"You know, Joe, I don't know if you're trying to be funny, or you're trying to be mean, or you're just oblivious to the words that come out of your mouth, but I've just realized you've been spending a lot of time doing what you just did -- complimenting me, then slamming me. It's annoying me, and now that you know you've been doing it, I expect you to knock it off."

Expect apologies, and then no more of this (albeit with an occasional catching himself halfway through it, then apologizing.) That's the best-case scenario. If he gets defensive, let him know that as his friend and business partner you don't care whether he meant to do it, the fact is he's doing it and needs to stop. If he gets abusive, tell him that as his friend and business partner you don't want to hear it, and he can take it outside until he cools off. If he apologizes, then goes right on doing it, each time he does it say "I asked you to stop doing that. Apologize to me, right now." He'll chaff at that, but you can then respond with "I'm treating you like a child because you didn't listen when I treated you like an adult about this." If it doesn't get better, you don't have a friend, and it's time to end the business partnership.

In short, address it head-on, and if he behaves like a child, treat him like one and, worst case, sever the relationship.
posted by davejay at 11:14 AM on August 5, 2010

Er, chafe. Gah.
posted by davejay at 11:16 AM on August 5, 2010

Be direct in your response that you don't appreciate that sort of behavior.

I had to terminate a long friendship because of such behavior. First I [ill-advisedly] tried responding passive-aggressively, but that angered him and made him even more passive-aggressive towards me. When I tried being direct, it was met with flustered rage and silence, and the behavior never corrected.

Don't let it eat away at you.
posted by MonsieurBon at 11:59 AM on August 5, 2010

Also again, it's done in friendly manner, so that person usually insist that it wasn't meant that way.

I think bonobothegreat and Lorc have it - I think you just need to bluntly call them on their bullshit. Just tell it like it is.

Person: "(Nasty joke)"

You: "These insults are really irritating and you do this constantly. I don't know why you are doing this but it needs to stop, now."

Person: "WTF? I was just joking. Lighten up, you have no sense of humor."

You: "If it were just a joke you would stop when you found out it bothered me; you don't want to stop so I know it's not really a joke, you're doing it to insult me. So just drop it."

There's another thing you can do too, has worked for me as a last resort. It is not mature or nice at all, and could ruin your friendship if you cut too deep, but ...

Bullies target people who they think will just take it, and/or can't hit back. But everyone has something that they are sensitive about, or ashamed of. When they insult you, come back with something equally or more insulting - but it will only work if it's really something they are self conscious about.

There was a girl in my close circle of friends in high school who weighed about 10 lbs less than me, was a slightly better athlete on our team, and was always "joking" about how fat I was. Most of the time I just ignored/deflected the jokes because they didn't really bother me as much as she thought they did, but eventually I got really annoyed. Finally I said some cliche to her along the lines of "Look, I may be fat, but you are really ugly, and I could always lose weight if I wanted to." She cried, which made me feel like shit, and I'm not proud that I said that, but she didn't make any fat jokes anymore.
posted by Ashley801 at 1:28 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Never underestimate the power of "that's not cool."

That aside, I've found a variation on micawber's #3 to be very helpful in my life. Crappy or illogical behavior is a lot easier for people to engage in and promote than to explain. "I don't understand" has gotten me past a lot of hurdles in the past. If this guy deploys this with you then put him in the position of having to explain it.

While he may find ways to backpedal or excuse it when you do this it'll at the least take the fun out of it for him.
posted by phearlez at 2:34 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

What do you think this person's intent is? Is his/her intent to bully you or friendly teasing? For some people, that's just how they show affection.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:17 PM on August 5, 2010

"I think I need a break from those kinds of jokes. Is that alright with you?"
posted by argybarg at 10:12 PM on August 5, 2010

You want to call the person out on their bullshit without trying to "win" in a way that plays into a Tom and Jerry dynamic, where each of you is compelled to retaliate. Don't worry about being funnier or more in control of the situation. Just kill it dead.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:45 AM on August 6, 2010

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