My Memorable Encounter with the Rudest Waiter in the World

“Elegance and kindness is an elegant and kind reply to the rudeness of this world.” (Mehmet Murat ildan)

Edsel Ford Fong, the world’s rudest waiter, 1982; Photo by Ken Gammage; public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There’s been a story in the news recently about a waiter in Vancouver, British Columbia, who was fired from his job last summer for rude and aggressive behavior. It seems he is now suing his former employer for a human rights violation, claiming that he is not rude, he’s merely French. His firing, Guillaume Rey contends, is discrimination against his “direct and expressive” culture.

The arguments on all sides of this have been most entertaining.

Some are defending rudeness as a quality of the French that is practically inbred. Others are saying that if a Frenchman wants to work in oh-so-polite Canada, he’d better change his ways. Some have said the waiter’s rudeness has been mostly directed toward his work colleagues for their shoddy performance, and that restaurant patrons find him not only acceptable, but charming.

The restaurant in question applied to have the complaint dismissed, but a judge has deemed it to have enough merit to move forward. At a time when nearly everything I see in the news makes me want to scoop out my eyeballs with a melon-baller, this story offers me not only something light to dwell on, but it also recalls a distant memory: More than four decades ago, I had an encounter with a waiter who was—certifiably—the rudest waiter in the world.

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, it was widely known that for the best Chinese food, you go to Chinatown. The restaurants there weren’t fancy, but the food was authentic, generally economical, and always delicious.

One summer day, my boyfriend (who, about 25 years later, became my husband), our friend Bob, and I decided to have lunch in Chinatown after a morning of exploring Golden Gate Park. After finally finding a parking place, we walked into the nearest Chinese restaurant which happened to be called Sam Wo, a name that literally means “three in peace.” How appropriate for the flower children that we were then.

We were led up some creaky wooden stairs and shown to a small table in a crowded second floor dining room. A large Chinese man in a stained apron and bow-tie descended on us.

“Sit down and shut up,” were his first words to us.

He tossed three menus on the table and turned away without another word. We looked at one another. Had we heard him right? Couldn’t be. We must have misunderstood.

We looked at our menus. They were printed entirely in Chinese, without even any helpful photos to suggest what the items might be.

The waiter came back with three glasses of water that sloshed across the table as he slammed them down. “What you want?” he asked.

Bob asked if there was an English menu. Our waiter completely ignored him. Bill started to ask a question and the waiter cut him off in mid-sentence. “Her,” he pointed at me, “I talk only to her.”

I, unfortunately, was speechless. Our waiter glared and said, “I be back in two minutes. You be ready.”

Thinking back on it, I don’t know why we didn’t get up and walk out. Bob was rocking in his chair laughing. Bill was also amused, but equally alarmed. At that time, I was a painfully shy 18-year-old. Bill knew it and clearly wondered if I was up to the encounter.

We looked around and saw our waiter berating diners at a nearby table. They looked as startled as we were. Then he went to another table and heaped abuse on the patrons, who laughed and appeared to be lapping up their mistreatment.

Our two minutes were almost up. “Okay, guys, what do I do?” I asked my tablemates. We looked over at the table closest to ours. They were sharing a big bowl that looked like noodles tossed with vegetables and another large plate of stir-fried vegetables and some sort of meat.

“Let’s order that,” Bill suggested.

When our waiter came back, I pointed to the table next to us and said, “We’ll have that.” He turned and left without a word.

When he came back a few minutes later with our order, he tossed three sets of chopsticks in the center of the table. I had absolutely no proficiency with chopsticks, but had seen what happened when another diner asked our waiter for a fork: “No forks. You eat with chopsticks!” he had screamed.

This, I decided, was as good a time as any to learn to use chopsticks.

The meal, when it came, didn’t look much like what we’d seen on the nearby table, but even if it had been octopus tentacles and chicken beaks in butterscotch pudding, we wouldn’t have said a word. Fortunately, it was delicious and we ate every morsel.

The instant our last bite had been taken, our waiter swept the plates from our table and threw down our check with the words, “Small check, big tip.”

We took it as a warning and left him a decent tip. As we stood to go, he was back. He grabbed our money from the table, looked at it and nodded. Then he nodded again at me, leaned over and kissed my cheek. We walked out quickly, with Bob still laughing merrily.

A few days later, I described the surreal experience to a colleague where I worked. He laughed, “That’s Edsel Ford Fong, you really haven’t heard of him?”

Edsel Ford Fong. “No.” That’s not a name I would have forgotten.

I learned then that Edsel Ford Fong was famous. Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, wrote about him frequently and had dubbed Fong “the world’s rudest waiter.”

As we learned more about our waiter, we realized we had gotten off easy. Fong was known to have berated patrons by calling them “fat,” “stupid,” or something equally offensive. On occasion, he required guests to clear and wash the dishes from their table, and it is said that he regularly groped female patrons. This was the 1970s—a very different time!

There is a Wikipedia page for Edsel Ford Fong and a lengthy description of his behavior on http://priceonomics.com/the-worst-waiter-in-history/, which refers to him as “the rudest, most despotic waiter to ever walk the earth.” It also describes how countless San Franciscans came back time and again for more of his abuse. It’s not entirely clear whether Fong was an obnoxious bully, a master showman, or, as I suspect, both.

Edsel Ford Fong died in 1984 at the age of 56. The Sam Wo Restaurant closed in 2012 after nearly 100 years of operation. Fong is still a legend in the Bay Area, and still recalled by many as the instigator of their most unforgettable dining experience. Today, I bear little resemblance to the shy 18-year-old who was once bussed by the “rudest waiter in the world.” Over the years, I have had the pleasure of dining at many fine restaurants, and—while I don’t condone Fong’s behavior—I, too, count that lunch as one of my most memorable restaurant experiences.

While rudeness is rampant in this second decade of the 21st century, I have my doubts that a waiter like Edsel Ford Fong would last long in the hospitality industry—certainly not here in Seattle. I will be watching with interest to see what happens when Guillaume Rey gets his day in Canadian court. French, indeed!

“I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind.” (Khalil Gibran)

Let’s Pause for a Moment of Kindness

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” (Victor Frankl)

attribution: Donna CameronA lot has happened since I embarked on this journey to explore, experience, and express kindness. January of 2015 might as well be another era—and maybe even another planet—given how much the world has changed. When my year of living kindly started, the 2016 presidential campaign was embryonic. There were few candidates and they had yet to commence behaving like spoiled children and slinging mud or lies. Societal expressions of bullying and bigotry—while always present—had yet to become a badge of honor, proof of manliness, and source of pride for so many.

By the end of 2015, denigration, name-calling, and lies for the sake of expedience were rampant. My feeble attempt to shine a light on kindness was no match for incendiary politics or blatant socio-economic oppression. But the need for kindness was greater than ever and I saw that living kindly was not something one does for a year and moves on (“How about a year of learning to vacuum and close cupboard doors,” my husband suggested hopefully, knowing all the while that I could grasp neither concept). Living kindly was both path and destination, so one year stretched to two, and now two-and-a-half.

I’m called to revisit earlier explorations—to see if two years later I see things any differently. What did I get right, what did I miss?

The Power of the Pause

For me, one of the biggest lessons of kindness was the power of the pause. Recognizing that a knee-jerk response to perceived slights or bad behavior is neither necessary nor wise was a life-changing insight. Such impulsive reactions are not always an expression of my best self. A pause gives me an opportunity to consider:

  • Did that person mean for their words to come out this way? Might there be a kinder interpretation?
  • Even if their words were intended to hurt or belittle, why must I react in kind? Is my aim to create more conflict or improve the situation?
  • If I say something snarky, will I feel good about it later?
  • What is the kind response here?
  • Is a response even needed or is silence golden?
  • Why am I reacting as I am?

Pausing is a lesson I learned, but also one that continues to challenge me. Since last November’s election, I have needed to relearn—and re-examine—the pause. When I am provoked, I endeavor to pause; sometimes I stay silent and sometimes I speak my heart. There are still occasions when I mutter phrases like “incredible moron” or “clueless Neanderthal,” but I say them privately or to the television. I try to weigh whether or not my response to someone’s political commentary will move the needle—and in which direction. Pausing is a lesson politicians and pundits would do well to learn.

Since learning to pause, I find I am much quieter overall. I don’t need to be right—or righteous—and I don’t need to point out someone else’s foibles. If my husband leaves the lights on right after chiding me for doing the same, I turn the lights off without comment (okay, maybe not every time!). The more I choose to be silent, the easier it is to choose silence. Ultimately, the pause leads me toward peace.

What I learned about pausing two years ago remains true, and the connection between pausing and kindness is unmistakable. In fact, the pause is even more essential to kindness than I originally thought.

I have come to see even more benefits from the simple pause. In addition to forestalling reflexive reactions and allowing me to choose the kind response, the pause is one of the best strategies I have found for self-care. Recognizing when I need to experience quiet or take a few deep breaths—and then doing so—is an ultimate act of kindness to self. And kindness must begin with self.

A pause offers a moment to experience gratitude, to feel joy, to appreciate beauty, to recognize kindness.

In today’s world, every day brings something to be angry or frustrated about: political corruption, injustice, discrimination, the ever-widening gap between those with privilege and those without, threats to our environment, and the acceptance and proliferation of incivility. There are letters to be written, calls to be made, petitions to be signed, conversations to be initiated, and waters to be tested.

The issues that anger me and push all my buttons may not be the ones that rile you. But for each of us there are provocations that elicit our anger and trigger our activism. Thank goodness for that. Yet we also need to recognize when our responses are damaging to our spirits, our bodies, our psyches, or our relationships. As much as we need to be active and vigilant—now more than ever—we also need to give ourselves permission to rest, to say no . . . to pause. And we need to be able to claim that pause for ourselves without guilt or self-reproach.

Whether we are responding to outer stimuli or to inner angst, the ultimate expression of kindness may start with a pause . . . or end with a pause. A pause is not an empty space. It’s a space that is rich with potential. It’s where we choose who we will be and how we will live.

“Human freedom involves our capacity to pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight.” (Rollo May)

 

Looking Forward: Will Kindness Rally in 2017?

“If you ask me what I came to this world to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud.” (Emile Zola)

Attribution: Donna CameronI try always to spend some time in contemplation at the end of each year. I’m not big on holiday celebrations, decorations, or entertaining, but I like to use that time to find my quiet center and think about the year that is coming to a close, as well as to set intentions for the year ahead.

I’ve probably said enough about 2016, the year of the bully, the year we saw the phrase “anything is possible” come to mean “welcome to the apocalypse.” I will only say that kindness took quite a hit. But it’s not down and it’s not out. That brings me to the new year.

As I look forward to 2017, I’m noticing a complexity to my intentions. It seems like it is not so much setting goals as managing polarities—trying to find the right balance between seemingly opposite, conflicting objectives.

Kindness vs. Confrontation:

I want to be kind. I also want to stand up to injustice and bigotry with all my strength and with my full voice. These two things need not be in conflict, but sometimes it is hard to be kind when face-to-face with deliberate incivility, prejudice, and disregard for the truth. I struggle with the challenge of remaining kind while also standing up to lies and bigotry. I remind myself to call out the behavior not the person, but there are people whose behaviors speak so loudly of who they are that it is hard to separate the two. And maybe sometimes we can’t…and shouldn’t. I will be ready. I will practice standing up to bigotry without expressing similar intolerance. I will think now about what I will say if I see someone being harassed because they are a minority, or a member of the LGBTQ community, or differently-abled—be it on a plane, in a store, or online. I will not be silent.

Isolation vs. Activism:

I want to withdraw into a place where the gloom is not so constant, where I can sometimes forget for a few hours that values like honesty, integrity, and equality have been kicked to the curb. I want to lick my wounds and take care of myself and the people I love. At the same time, more than ever I want to speak out, to march, to use whatever meager talents I have to stand for what I believe to be right. I recognize that self-care must be a priority if I am to be in this fight for the long-haul, and if I am to avoid becoming perpetually angry and a hardened cynic. As something of an introvert, I know that for me self-care means residing in quiet places where I can replenish my spirit and reconnect with my deepest values. When refueled, I can cluster with like-minded people, draw strength from them, and let them draw strength from me. I will not be silent.

Optimism vs. Pessimism:

I want to be an optimist; that is my default setting (while my husband has firmly claimed the opposite position). But I also know that mindless optimism is dangerous. I have to be realistic and cognizant to the fact that there are people in positions of power who are counting on the obliviousness and optimism of their foes. If I deny the damage they can do and simply trust that “all will be well,” their greed, bigotry, and deceit will grow and take a deeper hold. So, I’m going to try for what I’m calling optimistic realism: I anticipate that the year ahead is going to introduce us to rings of hell we never imagined, and I also recognize that those of us standing up to prejudice and the misuse of power will ultimately triumph over those destructive forces by our sheer numbers and our unwavering commitment. I will not be silent.

What Remains Sacred

Even with these apparent polarities to be managed, there are still some things that brook no compromise, that stand alone as values to be upheld—no matter what:

Truth is one such absolute. Sadly, the biggest casualty of 2016 was the truth. We have seen that there are people for whom the truth is only important when it serves their interests, and who will trample on it if it gets in their way. History has shown us what happens when people allow truth to be selective and manipulated. Truth may not always be pretty, and it may not be soothing, but we must face it and act accordingly. We must not be silent.

Integrity, like truth, is not conditional. We either act with integrity or we don’t. Most of us know the difference. Those who don’t need to be enlightened and if they still disregard integrity, they need to be removed from power. We must not be silent.

Justice and equality. These two go together. There is no justice if standards apply differently depending on the ethnicity, gender, or status of the individuals. There are no groups that are inherently superior, none that are intrinsically entitled. Having said that, there may be times when justice and equality dictate that we offer an advantage to make up for decades of disadvantage. Someone once said, “At the table of peace there will be bread and justice.” That table has no place for those who measure success by wealth and who equate affluence with power. We must not be silent.

Since launching this blog, I’ve started and ended each year with one particular quote from Neil Gaiman. This year, it’s still Neil Gaiman, but it’s a different quote:

Be kind to yourself in the year ahead. Remember to forgive yourself, and to forgive others. It’s too easy to be outraged these days, so much harder to change things, to reach out, to understand. Try to make your time matter: minutes and hours and days and weeks can blow away like dead leaves, with nothing to show but time you spent not quite ever doing things, or time you spent waiting to begin. Meet new people and talk to them. Make new things and show them to people who might enjoy them. Hug too much. Smile too much. And, when you can, love.

Peace and thanks to all of you, my friends. Sharing with you the joys, sadnesses, challenges, and disappointments of 2016 has strengthened me and fed my resolve. I feel blessed to be part of a warm and embracing community. My wish for you—for all of us—in the coming year is for health, happiness, laughter, strength, voice, community, and, of course, kindness.

Choosing Our Cyber-Voices

“The true essence of humankind is kindness. There are other qualities which come from education or knowledge, but it is essential, if one wishes to be a genuine human being and impart satisfying meaning to one’s existence, to have a good heart.” (The Dalai Lama)

Troll dolls came originally from Denmark; inexplicably, they were one of the biggest toy fads of the 1960s in America.

Troll dolls came originally from Denmark; inexplicably, they were one of the biggest toy fads of the 1960s in America.

Over the summer, I wrote a few posts about bullying. I thought I was done with the subject, but one aspect of bullying I didn’t spend much time on is cyberbullying. The more I read and learn about bullying, the more I see how cyberbullying has taken bullying to new and insidious heights. I’ve been shocked to learn about the extent of it and the number of suicides and attempted suicides it has triggered—mostly in children and teens.

My friend Ann shared an excellent article with me from the Nov/Dec 2014 issue of Scientific American Mind. “Virtual Assault” describes the many ways people are bullied online or through social media, and the psychology of people who engage in such poisonous activities. It noted, interestingly, that “contrary to popular wisdom, bullies are not merely compensating for their own low self-esteem,” but often they are “perched at the top of the social hierarchy and demean others to cement their position.”

I also learned that people who engage in cyberbullying and attacking others on-line or through social media are referred to as “trolls.” It’s often up to the on-line community, says article author Elizabeth Svoboda, to establish norms and tell trolls in no uncertain terms that bullying is not acceptable. Svoboda also says one way to counter the damage of bullying is to step in and offer support to the victim. Silence isn’t golden.

The Damage Trolls Do

A front page article in the Seattle Times earlier this month addressed how Donald Trump is effectively using Twitter to outpace his Republican rivals for the presidential nomination. The article strayed from mere politics to describe how last year Trump devastated actress Kim Novak by posting a cruel tweet.

The reclusive actress—a glamorous movie star in the 1950s, now in her 80s—was convinced by friends to make a rare public appearance at the 2014 Academy Awards. As she was on stage making a presentation, Trump tweeted, “I’m having a real hard time watching. Kim should sue her plastic surgeon.”

Ms. Novak was devastated. She retreated to her Oregon home and didn’t leave for months, having fallen into a self-described “tailspin.” When she finally did comment, she called Trump a bully. Many other people expressed their disgust at his comment and he eventually backtracked. Later, he expressed regret for sending the tweet. He said, “That was done in fun, but sometimes you do things in fun and they turn out to be hurtful.” At the same time, he stood by equally unkind comments he has made about other celebrities.

It saddens me that so many Americans are supporting a person who believes sending so public and so cruel a message is “fun.” Just because you may have a “fun” thought doesn’t mean you should send it out to millions of people who, themselves, may forward it further. Words can hurt. Kindness counts.

YOLK Fights Temptation

I have to make a confession here: Ever since I learned that cyberbullies are called “trolls” and subsequently read about Trump’s cruel tweet regarding Kim Novak, I have mentally photo-shopped Donald Trump’s head onto a troll-doll, such as the one at the beginning of this post. Now, when I picture Mr. Trump that is the image I see.

I was oh, so tempted to actually photo-shop the picture that is in my head and post that on today’s blog. There’s no question that it would have been fun, and it would even convey a timely message about bullying, but it would not have been kind. I would be engaging in exactly what I am decrying. Although I am often willing to overstep political correctness for a cheap laugh, I knew I wouldn’t feel good about doing something like this. If I believe we have a responsibility to use the internet and social media for good, I can’t justify sending out an unkind image—however adorable it may be. I leave it to my readers’ imaginations.

Another Segue—But It’s All Still Connected

I recently watched a very interesting TED talk featuring Monica Lewinsky—yes, that Monica Lewinsky. Nearly 20 years after she was involved in one of the biggest scandals in modern American history, she is now an articulate and poised woman in her early 40s. She spoke movingly about her extremely high-profile humiliation in the late 1990s, about the aftermath that nearly drove her to suicide, about her decade-long silence, and her subsequent decision to take a vocal stand against cyberbullying. Many things struck me in her very candid and thought-provoking talk—I encourage you to listen for yourself—and one was extremely simple: our clicks matter.

We can change the unkindness being spread online and through social media by not clicking on it. Not clicking when we see a venomous, cruel, or provocative headline, not clicking when we encounter negative articles and message boards. It’s that simple: we manifest what we give our attention to, and if our attention is on the cruel and the crude, it will foster more of the same. Likewise, we can foster a positive and healthy cyberspace by choosing kindness, making kind comments, and taking the time to encourage rather than berate. With every click, we make a choice.

Trusting the Kindness of Others

When I started planning and setting up this blog nearly a year ago, I read a couple of books and a number of articles about blogging. I also talked to a few experienced bloggers. Out of the many pieces of excellent advice I got, there was one I chose to ignore.

Everyone said to set up the blog so I could moderate comments before they went public, or at least moderate the first comment someone makes, then, if I approve their comment, that individual is “pre-approved” for future comments. The other option was viewed as dangerous: to allow any comments to appear without an opportunity to weed out the crackpots.

WordPress is a great platform and it gives the novice blogger plenty of guidance and plenty of options. During set-up, I clicked the button that allows comments to appear without any moderation. It seemed to me if I was going to commit to kindness, I needed to trust that any readers who might visit the blog and take the time to comment would have good intent. I haven’t regretted it. I will also admit, though, that I did think that if anyone posted a rude or malicious message, it would give me an opportunity to test my kindness resolve—could I be gracious and compassionate if attacked online?

Without exception, the comments readers have made have been thoughtful, wise, and also kind. They’ve inspired me to think, sometimes to laugh, and always to feel grateful for the time commenters have taken to share their thoughts. If there are any crackpots out there, I haven’t encountered them (okay, maybe my husband, but being a crackpot is one of his most endearing qualities).

Through this blog and the WordPress community, I have met countless interesting, funny, wise, generous, smart bloggers. There is so much positivity in this community and I am better for the connections I have made here. That’s why I’m so surprised when I hear about the cruelty and malice some people engage in—usually anonymously. I don’t understand it; perhaps I never will. But if enough of us click mindfully, and choose kindness, perhaps the unkind voices will someday be stilled.

That will news worth tweeting….

“How would your life be different if…you stopped making negative judgmental assumptions about people you encounter? Let today be the day…you look for the good in everyone you meet and respect their journey.” (Steve Maraboli)

Choosing Between Bystanding and Standing Up for Kindness

“It is only with true love and compassion that we can begin to mend what is broken in the world. It is these two blessed things that can begin to heal all broken hearts.” (Steve Maraboli) 

Attribution: Donna CameronThe vast majority of young people are not bullies and are not the bullied. They’re bystanders, and this, I suspect, is where efforts need to be focused to make bullying a thing of the past.

It’s true with adults, too. We see bullying in the workplace, or perhaps on the sports-field or the grocery store parking lot, and we don’t like it but we don’t know how to intervene.

In the discussion of bullying—whether children, adolescents, or adults—the key to countering the abuse is motivating bystanders to step in and act in support of the person being bullied.

According to Megan Kelley Hall, co-editor of Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories, “The bystander definitely has the power to help change the climate—with adults and children. In bullying cases with children, almost half of all bullying situations stop when a bystander gets involved.” She further explains that getting involved “doesn’t mean taking a stand or getting into the bully’s face, sometimes just the simple act of not giving the bully an audience or just taking the side of the victim is enough to get your point across.”

Helpful and Hurtful Bystanders

The website www.eyesonbullying.org describes both hurtful and helpful bystanders. The former instigate or encourage the bully, or sometimes they join in once bullying has begun. Sometimes they may not actively support the bullying behavior, but through their passive acceptance they condone the torment and offer the bully the audience he or she craves.

Helpful bystanders assess the situation and then directly intervene by defending the victim or redirecting the situation; or they get help from others present to stand up to or discourage the bully, or report the bullying to someone in authority who can intervene.

Why We Don’t Step Forward

The site also describes some of the reasons why bystanders don’t intervene. Among them:

  • They fear being hurt or becoming the target of the bully themselves;
  • They feel powerless to stop the bully;
  • They think it’s none of their business;
  • They don’t want to draw attention to themselves;
  • They fear retribution;
  • They fear that telling adults won’t help and may make the situation worse;
  • They don’t know what to do.

What to Do

The bystander’s reaction will set the tone for other witnesses and may serve to enlighten the bully without embarrassing or shaming them. Perhaps it will give them a means of exiting the encounter without feeling put down. Maybe—just maybe—it will teach them that there are more effective ways to behave—ways they haven’t learned at home and aren’t likely to. Silence and inaction sustain bullying. Whether the setting is the schoolyard, the workplace, social or recreational situations, or cyberspace, bullying must be nullified. For the vast majority of us who are neither bullied nor bullies, we have the responsibility to step in when we see bullying or other forms of cruelty. We need to say “no more” and model the world as we would like it to be.

It’s good to remember that everyone—bully, victim, and bystander—carries an invisible and heavy load. Perhaps one of the best reasons we are all here on this planet is to help others shoulder the weight of their load—even if we can’t see it and don’t know what it is.

The website www.bullying.org offers some excellent advice on what kids should do if they see someone else being bullied. Much of that advice is directly related to kindness. It suggests befriending a child who is being bullied—walk with them, eat lunch with them; involve or extend an invitation to the new kid in school or the kids who often seem to be alone. Don’t try to respond in kind to a bully—don’t fight them, make fun of them, or say mean things back at them—it usually makes things worse.

This is where parents and schools, and even the media, can help. If we have discussions about what to do when we witness bullying, we’ll be better prepared to act, rather than to be paralyzed by fear, confusion, or uncertainty. If kids—or adults—know that they can make a difference and are aware of strategies for intervening, they will be much more likely to do so.

Bullying Is Not a Rite of Passage

Jenny Hulme, author of How to Create Kind Schools, notes that bullying is not and should not be just part of growing up. “Bullying brings no benefits at all—either to the bully or the bullied. It can, instead, trigger a cycle of victimization that can last a lifetime. Studies have shown victims of bullying, including very able children, stand a much lower chance of doing well at school and are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and poor physical health as adults.”

According to Hulme, “Research into ‘bystanding’ demonstrates that people who are given a seminar on compassion, or were empowered to help others, are more likely to go against the majority” and step in to help someone who is being bullied.

Education is Key

Kids need to learn that bullying isn’t cool and it isn’t acceptable. They need to learn it at home, at school, from the media, and from their peers. And kids who are the target of bullies need to understand that there’s nothing wrong with them, and there’s nothing wrong with being different—it’s the bully who has the problem and the bully who needs fixing.

Schools and parents need to take seriously their responsibility to teach kids that it’s not enough not to be a bully, we must all be willing to step in when we see bullying, and let the perpetrator know it’s not acceptable. That takes courage, and courage—like kindness—is a capacity that strengthens with practice.

A Growing Kindness Movement

While unkindness and bullying are rampant, there also seems to be a growing movement to bring awareness of the issue, and growing efforts to both prevent bullying and nurture kindness. And, wisely, it’s often kids who are leading the charge.

Schools all over America—and in many other countries, as well—are building kindness into the curriculum, from K-12. Numerous programs have been launched to counter bullying—many created by and for kids. Among some great resources:

  • Kind Campaign – focused on helping eliminate unkindness between and among girls
  • The Great Kindness Challenge – with educational and “global” sites, it offers strategies and suggestions for practicing kindness in our everyday lives
  • Kidscape – a 30-year old U.K.-based anti-bullying organization focused on preventing bullying and protecting children
  • Bystander Revolution – lots of celebrities involved in this organization formed to counter bullying by focusing on kindness, courage, and inclusion.
  • www.stopbullying.gov
  • www.bullying.org

As we saw in an earlier post, “Adult bullies were often either bullies as children, or bullied as children.” It’s a cycle that must be broken. If you’re a parent, think about having a talk with your child about bullying and help him or her strategize how they will respond the next time they witness bullying. And do the same for yourself—whether you encounter it in the workplace, on the bus, or at a community meeting. Knowing in advance how we want to behave helps us to follow through when the circumstance arises.

Instead of standing by, let’s all stand up for what’s right.

“When we make judgments we’re inevitably acting on limited knowledge, isn’t it best to ask if we seek to understand, or simply let them be?” (Jay Woodman)

 

Little Bullies

“You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

attribution: Donna DameronI have absolutely no knowledge, training, or experience that would qualify me to write about children. But I am an American, so the fact of my ignorance shouldn’t stop me. Look at our lineup of 2016 presidential candidates.

Long ago, I appropriated a line from a quirky and underrated David Mamet movie, State and Main. When asked if I have children, I always reply, “No, I never saw the point of them.”

And it’s partly true. That whole biological-clock thing never activated for me. I never imagined myself a parent, and never, ever yearned to hold a baby or fill my home with miniature humans. I’m very glad most people feel otherwise, else we’d be a dying planet of self-absorbed baby-boomers with no subsequent generations to act smug towards.

But as I explore kindness, a frequent issue I encounter is bullying. I’ve written a few times about adult bullies, but I can’t ignore the huge problem of children who bully, or are bullied, and the long-term destructive effects of those behaviors. The vast majority of adult bullies were also bullies as children, or else they themselves were bullied or abused. The earlier we address and counter bullying, the better the chances of preventing it or breaking its cycle.

I don’t remember there being a lot of bullying in my childhood—of course, one of the benefits of aging is selective memory. Back when mastodons roamed the earth and the trendy social media platform was Pony Express, there must have been girls who were bullies, but I don’t remember any. Throughout my elementary school years, there were two boys whom I recall being bullies; they picked on smaller boys and strutted around like bantam-weight princes. I don’t think we called them bullies, though perhaps the boys they picked-on did. Neither boy was very bright; I supposed their bad behavior may have been their way of dealing with the fact that intelligence was rewarded at Greenbrae School and they struggled to keep up with their fellow 3rd graders.

21st Century Bullying

Bullying today is scary. It’s practiced and experienced by both boys and girls. It goes beyond taunts on the playground—which is bad enough—to organized hazing through social media and unimagined cruelty. Cyberbullying, especially, isn’t something that occurs and is then forgotten. It resides on social media sites, it gets forwarded, it takes on a life of its own.

Bullying takes many forms. What starts out as playground taunting might escalate into sexual harassment, gang activity, domestic violence, workplace intimidation, or elder abuse. The sooner we make it clear to all that any form of bullying is unacceptable, and the sooner we help bullies learn other behaviors, the sooner we will see declines in these offenses.

Stories are everywhere of the devastating effects of bullying. On her website, www.kindness-matters.org, Jacki James recounts the long-term bullying her son Peyton was subjected to, which eventually led to his suicide. We hear other stories of the quiet kids who were bullied for years before they snapped and turned a rifle on their persecutors, bystanders, and then themselves.

After her son’s suicide, Jacki James became an activist for kindness and to counter bullying. She created the website www.kindness-matters.org, which seeks to change the ways people interact with one another and to foster kindness on a global level. Ms. James explains that “Children bully others because it gives them a sense of power that they are otherwise missing in their lives. Many times, a bully will be the victim in a different situation, maybe at home or on a team. So to make up for their lack of self-worth, they lash out at others to give themselves power in that situation. It is a way of deflecting how they really feel about themselves onto someone else.”

Bullies, according to Ms. James, need to understand the damage their words can inflict. “They need to understand that they don’t know the demons another person is fighting and just because the person they’ve abused smiles or laughs, that doesn’t mean they’re ok. It just means they’re hiding their true feelings and either holding it all inside or lashing out at another time.” She cautions that no one wants to carry the guilt of saying something cruel and later learning that they were the last person to speak to another who took his or her own life. “That is a guilt that will tear you up, little by little, every day for the rest of your life.”

Kindness is Learned…As is Unkindness

It seems pretty obvious that kindness is something we learn—or don’t learn—as children. And then what we learn—or don’t—accompanies us into adulthood, where we become kind adults, bullies, or sometimes bystanders.

In an extensive study of 10,000 middle-school and high-school students, Harvard researchers found that 80% of kids said they were taught by their parents that personal happiness and high academic achievement were more important than caring for people. Though parents express positive views about kindness, their behaviors often negate them, and “their messages about achievement and happiness are drowning out their messages about concern for others.” Not surprisingly, 80% of kids confirmed that they, also, valued achievement and happiness over concern for others. Nor should it be a surprise, then, if 30% of middle and high-school students report having been bullied, half of all high-school students admit to cheating, and more than half the girls in grades 7-12 report experiencing sexual harassment in school.

How to Raise Kids to Be Kind

That same Harvard study identified five ways to raise children to truly value kindness:

  • Adults need to take responsibility. They need to assure that their own behaviors match the messages they tell their kids. They need to walk their talk.
  • Give kids opportunities to practice caring and helpfulness. Kindness is a learned behavior and will be strengthened with repeated opportunities to extend oneself and feel the satisfaction of helping.
  • Teach the skills to find perspective. The study describes this as “zooming in” and zooming out”—this means learning to recognize kindness opportunities in one’s circle of friends and family, and also to see the bigger picture of the need for kindness with strangers, the community, and even on a vaster, global scale.
  • Provide strong moral role models. Here, researchers stress the need for parents to acknowledge their own mistakes and to listen to kids and help them understand the world and develop empathy.
  • Help kids manage destructive feelings. Feelings such as anger, shame, or envy are unavoidable—but they can be expressed in harmful ways or they can be instructive and constructive. Through conversation, parents can help kids navigate the normal emotional roller-coaster of childhood and adolescence.

Recently, the Seattle Times ran a compelling and wide-ranging interview by columnist Nicole Brodeur with Melinda Gates, philanthropist extraordinaire and co-founder of the Gates Foundation. Ms. Gates, who seems to be a tremendously wise and caring individual, was asked what one piece of advice she has given her three children that she hopes they will remember. Her answer: “…be kind to other people, always find that place inside of other people where you can connect….that’s something that we talk about a lot in our home and live out. Kindness and respect.”

Children’s book author R.J. Palacio contends that most kids are—or have the potential to be—“little warriors of kindness.” That potential is either nurtured or stifled by what they see and hear as they grow. What an immense responsibility then rests on parents, teachers, other adults, and the media.

Even speaking as someone who doesn’t fathom kids, I recognize that it’s up to us adults to see that kindness is encouraged and not repressed. It’s up to us to model the behaviors we hope kids will nurture in themselves. It may be the most important job we have.

It is up to us…are we up to it?

[Next time: bystanders are the key to putting an end to bullying.]

“Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” (Attributed to Philo of Alexandria, Plato, and Ian MacLaren)

Big Bullies

“Look into your own heart, discover what it is that gives you pain and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.” (Karen Armstrong)

Port Ludlow WaterfallEven the best of us can have a bad day and act or speak unkindly.  I’ll bet even Mother Teresa had her snarky moments.  But consistent, repeated, and unrepentant unkindness is more than a slip or a slide.  It’s often the sign of a bully.

In general, people who chronically act unkindly do so out of a terribly misplaced sense of entitlement, or uncontrolled anger, or—as often as not—out of fear.  They may feel threatened, or they may be afraid of rejection or embarrassment, or of appearing weak or stupid.

Many, many years ago I worked with an angry man who boasted quite openly that his philosophy of life was what he called “I.O.” It stood for “instant offense.” In any interaction, this gentleman wanted to have the upper-hand, so he immediately sought ways to put the person he was interacting with on the defensive.

He was a large man, a former ball player, and he knew his size could intimidate. But if that wasn’t enough, he’d ask questions to put someone on the spot, or he’d dismiss their words with a derisive comment and a roll of his eyes. He knew how to look a person up and down and convey to them that he found them lacking. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was simply a bully. All these years later, I find myself wondering what he was afraid of. Did he fear that someone would see through his façade and recognize the insecure man inside? Had he not lived up to expectations—his own or someone else’s—and decided to cover up his disappointment by attacking others before they could recognize what he knew? Perhaps he had been hurt deeply and decided he could avoid a repeat of that experience by inflicting hurt first. Maybe he had been taught that this is how “real men” behave.

I avoided him whenever possible and fortunately didn’t have many occasions to interact with him in the company we worked for.  It would be interesting to encounter him today and see if the passage of time—more than three decades—has mellowed him.  I’d like to understand what was behind his unkindness; I’d like to see the likable qualities in him.  Maybe, after all, he’s just a pussy-cat at heart.  And maybe there are no calories in Ben & Jerry’s peach ice cream.

Adult Bullies

According to the website www.bullyingstatistics.org, “Adult bullies were often either bullies as children, or bullied as children.” The site further describes the typical adult bullies:

  1. Narcissistic Adult Bully: This type of adult bully is self-centered and does not share empathy with others. Additionally, they feel little anxiety about consequences. They seem to feel good about themselves, but in reality have a brittle narcissism that requires putting others down. [It’s probably unkind of me to say this, but doesn’t this describe Donald Trump to a tee?]
  2. Impulsive Adult Bully: Adult bullies in this category are more spontaneous and plan their bullying out less. Even if consequences are likely, this adult bully has a hard time restraining his or her behavior. In some cases, this type of bullying may be unintentional, resulting from periods of stress.
  3. Physical Bully: While adult bullying rarely turns to physical confrontation, there are, nonetheless, bullies who use physicality. In some cases, the adult bully may not actually physically harm the victim, but may use a looming threat of harm, or physical domination. Additionally, a physical bully may damage or steal a victim’s property, rather than physically confronting the victim.
  4. Verbal Adult Bully: Words can be quite damaging. Adult bullies who use this type of tactic may start rumors about the victim, or use sarcastic or demeaning language to dominate or humiliate another person. [Trump again?]
  5. Secondary Adult Bully: This is someone who does not initiate the bullying, but joins in so that he or she does not actually become a victim down the road. Secondary bullies may feel bad about what they are doing, but are more concerned about protecting themselves.

The website contends that there is little one can do about an adult bully, “because adult bullies are often in a set pattern. They are not interested in working things out and they are not interested in compromise. Rather, adult bullies are more interested in power and domination. They want to feel as though they are important and preferred, and they accomplish this by bringing others down.”

I’m not willing to concede that easily. I think there must be ways to stand up to bullies and let them know their behavior is not acceptable, and to do it without resorting to their own tactics of threatening or berating—which only shows them the power of bullying. Trying to shame a bully by embarrassing or berating them will probably have the effect of increasing their bullying tendencies. Like my office colleague from so many years ago, they will go into “instant offense” mode and strike wherever they see a likely target.

I don’t think kindness would have been an effective deterrent to that colleague’s bullying. He would probably have equated kindness with weakness and flexed his muscles all the more.

What might have been effective would have been for witnesses to let him know his behavior was unacceptable. Instead of remaining silent, colleagues and peers should have stepped in and calmly said, “Not cool, buddy.” Most bullies will back down—or at least back-off—if they see witnesses rallying to support the bully’s victim.

Perhaps the smartest thing to do when one is thrown into a situation with a bully is to get out. Don’t engage, don’t react in kind. Simply exit and avoid future interactions. But, of course, that’s not always possible. Sometimes the bullies in our lives are people we cannot avoid.

I keep thinking about the old adage that “the best revenge is a good life,” and that’s probably a good way to look at bullying in the long-term. But when one is actively being bullied or harassed, it does little good to think, “Hey, sport, in ten years I’ll have a great life and you’ll still be a colossal jerk.”

If we are not the bully’s target, but find ourselves in the position of witness or bystander, we need to step in and let the perpetrator know—in no uncertain terms—that such behavior is unacceptable. There is a place for kindness here, because if we can step in without expressing our anger or contempt, we can defuse the situation. Psychopaths and maniacs are to be seriously avoided, but your garden-variety bully might be tempered with judicious kindness.

Kindness requires action and it sometimes requires courage. When we witness bullying, we can’t ignore it and just be a bystander. Bullying is fostered by silence. We need to step in, speak up, and stand for what we know to be right.

Easier said than done, but kindness isn’t always easy … it is, though, always right.

It’s one thing to be an adult dealing with bullies—we have more options, more experience, more perspective, and more power—but children facing bullying can be devastated by it, and face lifelong consequences as a result. Let’s explore that next time. Please share your thoughts on bullying, at any age….

“Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.” (Khalil Gibran)