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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Be a knight about it

A knight at the crossroads, by Viktor Vasnetsov

I hadn't happened in a while. I didn't remember how it felt. In fact, it hadn't happened in such a long time, I failed to recognize it at first. When he walked up to me and started to talk, I had no idea of what was awaiting me.

No, I'm not talking about love!

I won't name this guy, not even his initial; I'll simply say he's an acquaintance I see on a very occasional basis, through common friends. We do not have a lot of commonalities, but I've always strived to at least be courteous with him. I have tried and showed interest in what he likes to talk about, even if we are worlds apart - that's the chameleon in me - and because my parents have raised me to be gracious in all situations.

So when he walked up to me and said "So, should we talk about ***?" (a somewhat conflictual topic that had come up earlier), I was not wary. I thought we were going to talk things over, and probably resolve them as I usually do in similar circumstances. I was all for that. I very rarely have conflicts with people, and when I do, I approach them in a pragmatic, constructive, pacifist, non-confrontational way.

What ensued, unfortunately, was a volley of bullets from him to me. He reproached me (and D) pretty much everything we have done in the past couple years. At first, even if slightly taken aback by the aggressive approach, I nonetheless listened, in case there was something there that deserved my attention. I mean, I'm certainly not perfect, and if some people occasionally annoy me, there's a big chance I occasionally annoy some people! Of course, I'm always open to dialogue and compromise if it will help restore harmonious interactions!

But soon enough, the quantity and the tone of his recriminations became the only thing I noticed. Now his hostage (I was watching the kids swim and could not leave), I stayed there, but I renounced to say anything. I knew it would be a waste of time. Each sentence was a bullet that did not call for a response, so I simply put myself in a mental state that would allow me to ward off the blows. There were so many of them it bordered on ridicule. At some point I wondered if he would reproach me to be alive and breathing! In any case, there was no point in reacting. I could only try and insulate myself against his fury, and wait until it was over. 

I'm sure by now you are curious as to what kind of things he was angry about, so here are some examples:

He said that the one time he was at our place, D and I failed abysmally in our host role. The reason? We did not offer him satisfying dessert with each meal (apparently, fruit does not qualify), and we also failed to offer "pop, chips and candy" between the meals (I imagine veggies and dip are out of the equation for him). 

(I really wanted to tell him that since he showed up at the table with no shirt on (a major no-no according to my etiquette education), he was lucky we fed him a meal at all!)

He added "That's not how you treat people!"

(I thought, if treating people well means feeding them junk all day long, then I'm glad I don't. Speaking of how to treat people, I remembered the day he embarrassed us by getting upset about the fact that Nova Scotians aren't all fluent in French: that day, he exclaimed his astonishment in front of a group of our anglophone friends, and insisted on speaking French to them even if they understood nothing of it. For goodness' sake, he himself cannot speak a word of English!)

He also said, in a very demeaning tone "And D, apart from being a doctor (the tone was particularly demeaning on this specific word), does he do anything useful? And you, apart from spending your days on the computer, what do you do?" (I'm a translator) "XYZ (his girlfriend), her, she cleans people's houses, now that's hard work! Do you know what it's like to get on all four and clean other people's stinky toilets?"

(Actually, I do, as part of my student summer job, on top of lifeguarding during the day, was to be a janitor at night.)

Having worked on a farm, he added "Do you know what it's like to shovel manure and drive truckloads of it all day long?" (I felt like saying he was doing exactly that this right moment, but I refrained.)

There was much, much more, but there's not point in me listing it all here. When he was done unloading his cargo of sh*t, he left, proof that he was not looking to have an open, constructive discussion with me, but that he was rather looking to let off steam. 

Even if the "dialogue" had seemed legit at first, by now I knew it had been a wondrous episode of bullying, of the kind I will remember for the rest of my life! Last time someone talked to me like that, I think I was 13, so this is unusual to say the least. What's discouraging is that this time it wasn't done to me by a fellow pubescent kid, but rather by a grown man. As Georges Brassens would sing, time changes nothing to it, when you're an a**hole, you're an a**hole.

How am I so sure what happened was bullying?

First, he ambushed me and made sure I was alone before he launched his "attack", and that, despite the fact that a group discussion would have been much more useful: he had as many reproaches for D as he had for me, and he also "quoted" XYZ, claiming she had the same frustrations as him. But he did not present his point in front of them, and he did not ask XYZ for her input. He clearly wanted to be in a position of power, and to achieve that, he isolated me.

Second, he showed absolutely no signs of wanting to resolve the conflict in a respectful, constructive way. Where was tact and diplomacy? Where was the genuine desire to make things better? It was nowhere to be found, and the reason is simple: that was not his goal at all. What he did try to achieve was to intimidate me and put me in my place. Very different.

Third, I felt diminished after, and it effectively affected both my mood and appetite for a couple hours.

Since I'm a fan of the pragmatic and constructive approach, let's put this upsetness behind us, and instead discuss ways to deal with bullying. 

We will all have to deal with difficult persons one time or another. We cannot shelter ourselves (and our kids) against it, but what can we do to ensure it does not destroy us? To present my point of view, I would like to offer the knight analogy.

Austria, 2009

From Wikipedia:

Knights of the medieval era were asked to protect the weak, defenseless, helpless, and fight for the general welfare of all. These few guidelines were the main duties of a medieval knight, but they were very hard to accomplish fully. Knights trained in hunting, fighting, and riding, amongst other things. They were also trained to practise courteous, honorable behaviour, which was considered extremely important. Chivalry (derived from the French word chevalier, implying "skills to handle a horse") was the main principle guiding a knight's lifestyle.

Not to backbite, but this guy definitely needs some more training in knight matters: it wasn't enough that he does not know how to talk to women... he's let one horse impale himself to death, and he's "poisoned" another one to death by feeding him the wrong stuff!!! If you're a horse and you see that man approach... run for your life!

Those people are good to horses.
Featuring R.
Quebec, 2012

What I like about the chivalry code is that it emphasizes dignity. In the face of bullying, I strongly believe that preserving dignity should be the priority. 

Depending on the aggressor, and on the type of aggression, sometimes it will be appropriate to react immediately, sometimes a delayed reaction will be better; sometimes it will be best to say nothing at all, and sometimes you will have to go get help. When you bite back, for example, in most cases all you do is show how threatened you are (there are exceptions to this of course). You are merely reacting to something that doesn't deserve a reaction. In any case, I've taught my kids to "be a knight about it":

1) Stay calm. The one who's fuming or disrespectful is the one who's vulnerable. As long as you are calm you are dominating the joust.

2) Use your shield and armor. The best way to defuse those attacks is to never let anything even get to you. Those shield and armor are not made of unhealthy, compensatory behaviors. They are made of a composed, confident attitude.

Your knight equipment

3) Your weapons should be sharpened and shined regularly, make a clear cut, and come out clean. Your attacker should not even feel the pain. In brief, if you bite back, nobody should even realize it, so subtly you do it. Basically, you want him to be disarmed, but without intensifying the altercation.

4) Remember this: no matter how intimidating a bully can be, their behavior only reveals something about them. Not about you. A bully's attitude says everything about their issues. No matter the reason of their attitude, in most cases they are not aware of it. There are cases of people who will consciously try and dominate, but for the most part I think they are simply reacting instinctively to something buried deep down inside: a low self-esteem, a fear of losing their status, the perpetual difficult childhood, or even a narcissistic personality. I see bullies as very weak individuals. It does not excuse their actions, but when you see what's underlying the "attack" you feel very differently about it. As soon as someone has that kind of attitude towards me I take a imaginary deep breath and an imaginary step back. I observe them calmly, from a distance, thinking "This person feels vulnerable right now, for some reason, and is attacking me for that". I like that "aha!" moment when I can tell myself "I see through you!" 

Love this video:

5) Modify your role. If you're not playing your part, the play can't go on as it was. All characters have to adapt. There can be no bully if there is no victim. That does NOT mean that you are responsible if someone attacks you, not at all! But refusing the role the bully is trying to put you in sometimes works wonders. You can at least try! My favorite "aha!" moment has to be when the attacker softens, just like an angry dog under my calm, assertive and compassionate hand.

6) Don't hesitate to get help. No one should have to face bullying alone. If you don't talk to someone about it, you run the risk of attributing the responsibility to yourself. Get a second opinion!

7) Sometimes, bullying is subtle and insidious, especially when it originates from a "friend" or a family member. As much as I believe in analyzing a situation in order to understand it better... there comes a point where even analysis is superfluous; if interacting with a certain person most often leaves you with a bitter aftertaste, and even if interactions with this person have been wonderful in the past, take it for what it has become: a toxic relationship. One can only work so much at trying to recover the idyllic beginnings of a relationship that has now turned sour. If you're the only one trying to salvage it, nothing good will come out of it. Save you precious energy. Let it go. This is a hard decision to make, but it doesn't need to be made overnight, and you don't need to "officialize it" to the object of you frustrations. Just slowly back up. It might hurt now, but I promise that within a few weeks you will feel so much lighter!

8) Remember that nothing justifies bullying. EVER. Even if you've made mistakes and have been imperfect. There are appropriate ways to talk to people, and bullying is not one. Be proud of yourself. Remind yourself of your own value. Tell yourself "I kick as*!"

For more on bullying:


Any experiences of bullying, or strategies you'd like to share?


  1. I really hope you can avoid seeing that idiot in the future. I have to assume he is truly unhappy with his own life to be so critical of yours and your hospitality. Maybe jealousy? I think people like that want to drag everyone else into their abyss of unhappiness.

    1. You are probably right, A! At first I sincerely questioned myself, but it was so big I can't help but think he's got problems to solve in his own life!

      You can be sure I will avoid him!

  2. All I can say is - I'm so sorry that you were bullied!!
    I love the knight analogy for handling bullying - my son is really into medieval history so lots of knight talk here!!

    1. Thank you Kim! Luckily, writing on my blog at length about it made me feel much, much better! :-)

      It must be so much fun to talk about knights and medieval history with your son! :-)

  3. I am so sorry that that man bullied you. There is no excuse for that. Your post shows that bullying does not just happen with children but adults as well.

    That knight analogy is perfect!

    1. I've heard there can be a lot of bullying in the workplace (so, between adults). Luckily for me I work from home and I am my own boss... :-) This guy bullied me during my vacation!!!

      I hope that other adults who get bullied will recognize it for what it is!

  4. Wow!!

    This guy was some piece of work! I'm sorry you had to experience this, Julie!

    Being bullied as a child was a difficult time for me. I've heard others say that they were grateful to so and so for helping them to grow stronger, but that never felt good to me.

    When I was older, an incident with a bully led me to acquire skills and with that confidence.

    The last person to bully me was left lying on the ground for 10 minutes to reflect on his actions.

    That did feel good to me.

    1. I might not be able to put a big, tough guy on the ground for 10 minutes, unfortunately (that must have felt good all right! LOL), but I have enough confidence and calm to deal with it and not be too affected.

      Unfortunately, many kids don't have that strength yet.

      I've always been very skeptical about the idea that suffering is good and useful... in fact, in many cases it makes you a weaker person! As evidenced by studies on chronic pain, for example.

  5. That's great that you maintained your composure! I like your commentary on the issue, too. You're right that the way someone communicates speaks about who they are and not you or your worth.

    Here's what I would do.

    Say, "Wait! Please hold it right there!"

    Then I'd take my phone and start recording.

    "OK...go!" And smile as I hold up my phone to record them.

    I actually did that once! I started laughing and so did they. Nothing like good-natured laughter to spoil a bully's passive aggressive attack.

    If it's online I try to calmly "attack" the points and not the people.

    1. Well, Averyl, I actually started taking notes while he was talking!

      I do the same as you do online: I try to be very pragmatic (as opposed to emotional).

      Have a great day! :-)

    2. haha! Love the note taking!

      Thanks and you, too! :)