I doubt this will come as any sort of a surprise to anyone, but I’m a pretty big fan of The Big Bang Theory. I’ve come to the somewhat inevitable conclusion that I am, in fact, Sheldon Cooper in non-fictional form, and for the most part, it doesn’t bother me. I guess I finally am coming to terms with myself.
Characterization aside, one of the things I love about the show is that because it features so many different types of characters, I’m often shown an alternate perspective on a situation that I never would have seen otherwise. For example, I loved Episode 11 of Season 5 (“The Speckerman Recurrence,” for those keeping score at home) in which Leonard confronts his childhood bully. Because I was bullied in school as well, I found the end of the episode to be depressing and anti-climactic, but what really struck me was the conversation between Amy, Bernadette, and Penny about bullies in their respective schools. Both Bernadette and Amy recount almost predictable horror stories, but Penny’s casual comment that there weren’t really any bullies at her school because everyone pretty much got along really made me think about something I’d never thought about before, which was: How does all of this look to the bully? After all, I do believe that a hallmark of a close relationship is a level of comfort that allows for some gentle ribbing – I’m always teasing my friends, and they know I don’t mean anything by it – it’s just another way of gently reminding us all that there is a certain degree of closeness and comfort in the relationship, and that brings pleasure and comfort to all concerned.
And then it hit me.
I finally realized that the reason I felt bullied in the past might not have been because someone was trying on purpose to hurt my feelings. They may simply, as Penny did, assume a sense of intimacy in the relationship that I simply did not feel. What I like best about this theory is that it changes the tone of the “relationship” completely, from one of purposeful abuse to one of well-intentioned misunderstanding. (Note: “relationship” is in quotation marks in the previous sentence, because although some level of relationship is present, the opinions differ as to the level of intimacy the relationship has achieved.)
Now, I will be the first person to tell you that there are a few genuine bullies in the world that really do enjoy making other people miserable. While some things can be reinterpreted through the lenses of age and experience as harmless, others cannot. I don’t want to in any way diminish the anguish that is caused when a stream of hate is hurled at a person – believe me, I’ve been there too! I’ve had people tell me to my face that I was a waste of space, of breath, of time, and of effort, and I can assure you that the facial expression and tone of voice left no possibility that this person was teasing me as a friend. What I’m talking about is the milder teasing – the kind of teasing that would be funny if the person really was a close friend in your eyes.
For example, I have learned the “mirroring” technique of repeating what has been said to me in my own words, as a method for checking my understanding if I’m not sure I’m getting something. In a particular group with which I was affiliated a few years ago, this habit was a minor part of a comedy sketch performed for the amusement of the rest of the group. Because I was a relatively new member of this group, and did not have many friendships within the group, I was simultaneously very hurt and very embarrassed (especially considering the fact that they had initially asked for volunteers for the comedy sketch, and then wrote a part for me despite the fact that I not only did not volunteer, but specifically requested not to take part). I am not a part of this group anymore (although not necessarily because of this incident, and not necessarily because I felt bullied – there were a lot of other really good reasons for me to leave), and I don’t know if I ever would have felt comfortable as a part of it (again, for a variety of reasons, most of which are not related to this incident). At the time, I did feel bullied, but now I’m wondering if there was simply a disagreement as to the level of my relationship to the group. I don’t feel “made fun of” as much anymore; I just feel like that group felt a lot of closeness that I never felt a real part of. Not malicious, just misunderstanding, and because of that, I’m finally able to put the incident aside in my mind (have I mentioned that I tend to obsess a bit?).
For another example, right now I’ve got a part-time job at a local drugstore (I think I’ve mentioned this before, but if not, there it is). Although there is a near-constant revolving door of employees, there is a small core group that have worked together for a significant length of time. The first time I heard them playfully insulting each other, it made me feel very uncomfortable, even though it was not directed at me in any way – I felt that this was not appropriate workplace behavior. As I’ve worked there longer, I’ve begun to notice the way that the seemingly casual, offhand comments are actually very carefully timed for when customers are not in earshot, but other employees are (so that the customers aren’t offended, but the co-workers get to share the joke). I also noticed that these comments were not directed at me at first – I was merely the “audience” to the byplay – while we all got to know each other a little bit. Because of that warming-up period, the first time my boss told me I was a “slacker,” I knew it was totally acceptable to stick out my tongue and reply with, “Takes one to know one.” And we both laughed, and I felt like part of the team, and it was nice.
Now that I’ve realized and analyzed all of this, I’ve got a couple of suggestions for the World at Large as to how these kinds of social misunderstandings can be avoided:
- If you like to tease people you are close to, try to rein yourself in when you meet new people, even people that you seem to “click” with fairly quickly. Remember that this person may not know how to read your tone of voice or mannerisms accurately.
- If you tend to speak before you think (which I don’t often do, but when I do it, the results are always spectacularly awful), feel free to call yourself out. Something like, “Wow, I’m sorry. That wasn’t very nice of me, and I apologize if I hurt your feelings. That wasn’t my intention at all; I just like you, and sometimes I tease the people I like. If it bugs you, I’ll try really hard not to do it again,” can go a long way towards smoothing things over.
- If you feel you are being a victim of bullying, try to take a step back and think about how you would feel if someone you are comfortable with said something similar to you. It may be that the person you perceive to be bullying you feels your relationship is in a different place than you do. Most of the time, if you tell that person your feelings were hurt, if they truly meant no harm, they will sincerely apologize. Equivocating or trying to shift blame back to you for being offended is not a good sign, but trying to explain what they meant isn’t automatically bad.
- When in doubt, don’t tease people. Just don’t do it. Smile and say something nice instead.
The bottom line is that some people make friends faster than others. There’s no right-way-or-wrong-way to it, we’re all just different. I think the world will be a better place if we all try to be a little more aware of our similarities (that we’re all people together, and so we all laugh, we all cry, we all want to be loved, and so on) and our differences (some people are extraverted and some introverted, and so on). I really do believe that most people face life with the best of intentions, and that it’s best to be careful in what you say and do while simultaneously giving the people around you the benefit of the doubt. In this era of a strong “us or them” mentality, I’d sure like to see a lot more people coming together in understanding, rather than further dividing ourselves with fear and distrust.