On Adult Bullying and Dehumanizing via Technology

This post originally appeared on my personal Facebook page, and I was stunned that it got 140+ likes and 20+ comments in less than 24 hours. I think the message — simple as it is — resonates with many people who have been taught to “Let it go” or otherwise avoid conflict rather than dive in. That is the antithesis of the essential message from the Bhagavad Gita, a powerful yogic text. And, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this incident occurred while I was reading Brene Brown’s most recent book Rising Strongradishes, french breakfast radishes, french radishes, purple radish, radish, adult bullying

On Adult Bullying (and dehumanizing via technology and “smartypantness”):

I’m on the committee of a community garden plot in my neighborhood in DC. We have a 300 person waiting list for 40 occupied plots. People in the city crave the opportunity to get their hands in soil. Last spring, a gardener gave her plot to her friend without permission (going around our waiting list). This new gardener then behaved badly on more than one occasion over the summer (specifically: weeds were growing out of control in her plot, and a well-meaning fellow gardener over-trimmed the whole thing which made her irate at us), threatening our 3-person volunteer committee via various emails once the growing season was well-underway.

It was through those exchanges that we realized she has circumvented the process of getting a plot appropriately (but it was July — realistically too late in the season to give her plot to someone else).

A quick google search of her name revealed she is a human rights attorney. Ha, the irony. (also, only in DC, amIright???).

Most recently we reached out to let her know that we’d be giving the plot to one of the waiting list people for 2016. She claimed we then owed her $25 out of her $30 annual fee because she only used the plot since April (a “half” year…though we are talking gardens here) and found language in the contract that implies the $30 fee covers a three year period. She stated if she didn’t get it back “by 3pm today” that she would assume she would still have her plot until 2017.

I emailed her back: we would not be issuing a refund, that water, hoses, gravel and mulch cost money and no one was being paid. And the plot was still going to someone else. She didn’t get to make up the rules.

She stated she would bring us to small claims court. I did not reply.

When she showed up in person for the end of the year garden clean-up today, I pointed out that the small claims court filing fee would probably cost more than her $25, but she stated “Oh I’ll make that back” threatening us again. (meanwhile, her husband stood by looking confused and mortified).

My fellow committee members and I had consulted via email ahead of time. They all wanted to give her the money and move on. I refused. We are not incorporated. We don’t even have a checkbook. And it wasn’t about the money anyway.

In person, my mouth could not stay shut: I let her know she was trying to bully us. I pointed out that her counting of a garden season as a half-year made her sound like a 5.3 year old rounding up on her age. And I stood my ground as I stated that I am a volunteer who volunteered to create community space and fresh food in the heart of the city, not to quibble over contract language. The contract may be sloppily written, but who cares? there was precedent in 100s of emails sent and 100s of checks we’ve processed since opening the garden, and a long list of participants fully ready to pay even more than $30 to have this great privilege.

Also, I made the point that her emails were exceedingly rude and inhumane. Did she realize there were human beings on the other end? How would she feel if I read those in court? added those to the public domain? Or sent them to her boss? Or posted them to LinkedIn? (I don’t know what one would do with such things, and definitely never implied that I would…just that she should think twice about her behavior).

She walked away. Waited 5 minutes. Came back, and apologized.

It wasn’t an elegant apology. It was vague and implied wrongdoing on our part, but it worked.

And it made me think about all the adult bullies out there. It made me think about the ways that so many people let others get by with awful behavior because it’s inconvenient to confront them (People, please be kind to phone customer service reps..). About how she almost got her $25 back (hell, we’d have thrown $30 at her). It’s more convenient to just give a bully what they want and move on.

I had a similar experience with a supervisor at a job once, and during a performance review with my actual manager (not the supervisor), he referred to the (adult bullying) incident as “he gets intense”. At great personal risk, I politely and firmly stated, “That is not intensity. That was rude, presumptive, accusatory and non-professional. [That person] likely would never talk to a man that way.” My manager was unable to respond, because he knew it was true. I can’t change the behavior, but I can call it what it is.

Adult bullying happens all the time in workplaces. It happens with neighbors. It happens between men and women, and in condo boards, coops, volunteer community organizations. It happens in part these days because of the relative anonymity of email or technology. it happens when one’s academic degree confers a sense of superiority over others. And it needs to stop.

Moral of the story: stand up, be both kind and clear on behavior that you will and will not accept around you.

Even when the contract needs revision.

That is our yoga.

If this story resonates with you, tell us how? We’d love to read more in the comments area below!

ADDENDUM: A few bonus notes from the FB comments area:

  • My blood was boiling throughout the conversation, but I somehow (yoga?) managed to stay calm, and stay present through a bizarre and ungrounded conversation
  • Staying my ground continues to take practice, a sadhana in itself. I don’t see a large percentage of individuals modeling it. I see a lot of “Let it go” talk (advice I continue to get to this day!).
  • We are told way too often that the “adult” or “non-violent” way of addressing bad behavior is to ignore it or give them what they want and back away. I realize in other circumstances someone who is bullying could get violent, and that would not be safe to confront. But in this one, someone trying to manipulate with her law degree (and ironically her human rights attorney experience) — I dove right into the conflict and called her bluff 100x until she gave up. don’t give up, y’all.
  • On Bullying in the yoga world. I don’t know that bad behavior happens “more” in the yoga community, but it is a majorly BIG deal in the yoga community when it does happen because it’s often guised as untouchable because the perpetrators are being “yogic” (and can find some vague sutra to support them  or comment on “ahimsa” or non-attachment). Often it seems to happen around money — i.e. paying teachers, with yoga teachers demonized for asking for what they are worth. (Complex subject, as running a yoga studio isn’t exactly all fun and games, but I’ve heard many stories over the years).
  • I’m fascinated by social accountability. It’s imperfect, but here’s an example: Most of what I post on Facebook is public, or may as well be (who is that person who is my friend again? a yoga student from 2008??), and it makes me think very clearly about complaints or finger-pointing or political divisiveness that I inevitably want to put forth on occasion before I post. I wonder how much of this garden person’s apology came from a place of realizing the shame she would feel if her emails were made public? or from the fact that I just labeled her actions adult bullying (to her face)? Also, to be clear, had I replied to her emails instead of waiting to see her in person, I feel certain that all of this bullying would have escalated and my poor little garden committee would somehow (not sure how) be in small claims court. The technology enables these tendencies of dehumanization, but it can also be used to amp up accountability…

Let’s stay in touch! Once or twice a month I send out a newsletter covering the best of yoga (including yogic living), optimal health, yoga anatomy, physical therapy + I share the occasional recipe, PLUS get the scoop on amazing upcoming events, like my retreats and yoga anatomy trainings.

Sign up below to join the tribe! (We never spam, and you can always unsubscribe).