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“Then maybe that’s what you shoulda did!” he yelled, neither aware of nor interested, in just how stupid it made him sound.
He may not have known much, but at 6’3” and well over 250 pounds, he knew he didn’t have to rely on grammar to impose his will on people. As he towered over my comparatively paltry 5’9” frame, I could smell both his breath and the natural odors that a hot summer day elicits from a big man, furthering my extreme discomfort.
“Maybe that’s what I should have done,” I retorted sarcastically. It wasn’t much of a comeback, but by correcting him I was at least showing him I’m not afraid to stand up to him.
Or so I thought; from the confusion on his face, I could tell he didn’t see it that way. My tone suggested that I was being defiant, but he missed the fact that I was correcting him—to him it just sounded like I was agreeing with him, aggressively. I watched in real time as he tried to process this cognitive dissonance, failed, became enraged by it, then took his confusion and anger out on me.
I don’t actually remember what it was that had sent him into his latest fit of aggressive indignation, or what precisely he said next. But I’ll never forget how small—both physically and figuratively—his torrent of shouted f-bombs and maniacal rambling made me feel.
I was 24 years old, working at an internship that (illegally, I now realize) paid me less than minimum wage, and being ripped into in our open-concept office by the company’s resident workplace bully.
Belittled and Bewildered
In the month that I had worked there, at a small company publishing a limited-run lifestyle magazine, I could tell that Bruno* was both a blowhard and an insecure coward, as so many bullies are.
As the head of the advertising team, but with no actual experience in publishing, he frequently clashed with my boss, the magazine’s sole paid editor, who not only challenged his rude, domineering style, but did her best to shield her two interns from his wrath. On this particular day, however, he had confronted me directly, leaving her helpless to defend me.
It’s hard to describe the mix of inferiority, confusion and indignation I felt as he chewed me out for some perceived slight. Technically he wasn’t my boss and I didn’t report to him – in a proper magazine structure, an intern on the editorial team would have little-to-no contact with the advertising department – and even while this wildly unpleasant interaction was happening, I remember thinking just how bizarre and unnecessary it was.
But despite the fact that I knew he was clearly in the wrong, I can’t deny how belittling it was. Here I was, a grown man, being belligerently chastised in front of my peers as if I were the five-year-old child of an emotionally abusive parent.
It was especially disconcerting because, despite the fact that I was a total and utter nerd growing up, I had somehow managed to escape adolescence without ever having to suffer a bully’s wrath. Once I managed to reach adulthood unscathed, I assumed that I had permanently dodged the bullying bullet. So in addition to being belittling, it was bizarre and discomfiting to be so aggressively disavowed of my assumed safety.
Bullied, but Not Broken
In hindsight, I’m both surprised by and immensely proud of what happened next.
I remember going across the street to get some air and being immediately followed by my empathetic boss, who had witnessed the whole encounter and knew, having clashed with him many times before, how I must be feeling.
While I had managed to escape my nerdy teenage years without actually being bullied, to some degree I had always lived in fear of it. (Maybe it was because I grew up identifying with bookish characters in TV and movies, who were perpetually being teased by the “cool kids,” until they inevitably got their comeuppance at the end of the show.) So when one of my worst fears was finally realized, I would not have been at all surprised to find myself feeling deflated, dispirited and completely defeated.
Instead, the opposite occurred. While I certainly felt belittled in the moment, by the time I got outside, felt the sun on my skin and took a few deep breaths of clean, fresh air, my feelings of inferiority had morphed into indignation. The powerlessness I felt while being chewed out gave way to pride, and a recognition that no one deserves to be treated that way.
I talked to my boss about how unacceptable that was, and she agreed completely, but admitted she was essentially powerless to do anything about it. Bruno was a good friend of the company’s owner and had his ear. My boss, on the other hand, was a fairly recent hire in charge of one of the company’s less profitable properties; she had little leverage.
With six weeks still left on my contract and no realistic possibility of making the situation more hospitable, I told her I couldn’t – wouldn’t – work in that environment anymore. I said I’d finish out the week, then wouldn’t return.
The Long Arc of Asshole-dom
While I’m proud that, even as a young intern, I had enough self-respect to remove myself from an emotionally abusive situation, I also have to admit that, at the time, I harbored a great deal of resentment over the fact that Bruno’s bullying ultimately went unpunished. By bowing out, I felt like I was letting him “win.”
But as both my career and my understanding of people has progressed and developed, I’ve come to realize that ultimately Bruno and his ilk never win in any important sense. His behavior eventually became too much for my boss – a talented editor who was initially dedicated and enthusiastic about the magazine – to bear. She finally had enough, quit, and went on to a successful career with bigger and better-managed magazines and newspapers.
In the intervening years, I’ve kept my eye on the magazine, or tried to. It’s remained a small and insignificant bit player, despite Bruno’s ambitions and insistence it was going to be “massive.” I wasn’t the first person his behavior drove away, nor my boss the last.
While I can’t claim to take much pride in knowing that the magazine has floundered in recent years – I still respect the rest of my colleagues who worked there, and wish them well – its failure to launch serves as a frequent reminder of an essential truism: bullying can sometimes be an effective way to get what you want in the short-term, but it’s a much better way to ensure that you’ll fail in the long-term.
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