The first time I saw a xenophobe in full-abuse mode was in New York. I was about twenty. I was in some fast food place waiting to buy my greaseburger and fries. The jerk in front of me let forth a tirade about “We speak English here; this is America. If you can’t get an order right, you should go back on Welfare. Where’s your manager…”
What had the server done wrong? He served a large fry instead of a regular fry and charged the bully for the larger order.
I still remember how stiff and blank the abuse-target made his face. I wasn’t sure if he was going to lose his temper or cry. I was right behind the bully. A larger guy was right behind me. I could feel the tension from behind me. I was afraid that the guy behind me was going to punch the xenophobe out.
The manager came over and pulled the bully over for a chat. (Good move!)
I made my order and said, “That guy is a bully. Don’t pay attention to him.” And gave a big “thank you” when my order came. I heard the guy behind me say almost the same thing when he placed his order. Then I spoke to the manager about what I saw. So did the guy who was behind me.
Did I do the best I could do? Probably.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have encouraged everyone to look up. When someone is being a bully and everyone around casts their eyes down, the bullying can go on, unchallenged.
But, if people look at the bully, some bullies will realize that other people in the room have power and are not intimidated by the verbal abuse. Some will feel outnumbered, which will sap his strength. Some have the self-awareness to be embarrassed. That may be enough to get the bully to run out of venom and settle down.
But, if you can get even half the people in the vicinity to look, a change in the atmosphere can happen. Here’s a firsthand account from November 2016.
Ways to say “Look Up!” around Bullies
- If you are a bold person, loudly say something like this, “Everyone, please look up! I need help to silence this hateful and ignorant speech.”
- If you are a quiet person, then turn to the person next to you and say, “Please look up. Stare at that person who is speaking hate and ignorance. Pass it on!”
What kinds of things can you say to a bully, once you have an audience:
- You may not use words like that near me/ in a public place/ near my children. (Fill in as it applies.)
- I don’t care if you weren’t speaking to me. Those words are not welcome in a near me/ in a public place/ near my children.
- It is not all right to make fun of people. You are insulting people, please stop. That is not funny, it is insulting.
If you are not bold, you can speak to people around you, and not to the bully. Hopefully, a bolder person will speak out loud:
- Please say “shut up” you want this person to shut up.
- I have a quiet voice. Would you say, “Please applaud if you want this person to shut up for me.”? I’ll applaud with you.
- Would you say, “How many people want that guy to shut up? Raise your hands. Let’s tell him!”?
If the verbal abuse is aimed directly at a person, there are ways of supporting the direct target. That is a lesson for another day.