My daughter’s school has been teaching her about bullying. Hearing some of the topics they’ve discussed made me re-visit this post which I started writing two years ago.
When I first started writing this post, bullying was a hot topic in the news thanks to NFL players Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito.
Note: Just because I’m prefacing the post by mentioning sports, it doesn’t mean that this post is about sports. So if you’re one of my readers who tends to click away from sport-related posts (Mrs. Cutter and Mrs. Grafchak, this means you!) you can feel safe reading on.
If you don’t remember (or have willfully forgotten) Jonathan Martin, he was the Miami Dolphins player who left the team because he felt that one of his teammates (Incognito) was bullying him. We used to think of bullies as the bruising kid who threatened his classmates with physical punishment if they didn’t give up their lunch money. But as Martin and Incognito have shown, the concept of bullying has evolved over the years, and bullies can take on many different forms.
Back when this first became news, the always entertaining (and somewhat poignant) Drew Magary wrote an article related to the story:
When reading that article, the character of Jimmy seemed familiar. I realized that when interacting with my “friends,” I sometimes fall into the Jimmy role.
While I never played on a college football team, I have been a member of many recreational sports teams where the social dynamic can be similar. Most people join these leagues as an attempt to make friends, but just because you sign up for a team, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to fit in.
If you’re a fan of the TV show The League, think of how Andre interacts with the rest of the group. These people are supposedly his best friends, yet his attempts to fit in with them are awkward, uncomfortable, and usually leave him as the target of ridicule.
Back in my social days, I was more like the other members of the group who torment Andre. I was the guy who would loudly point out a questionable fashion choice, or would make a comment that would make someone feel a bit uncomfortable. “Good-natured” insults were plentiful.
You may wonder why I didn’t get punched in the face on a weekly basis. While part of it was because, like in The League, many of my friends behaved the same way, I think I was able to avoid physical retaliation mostly because I’m good at making fun of people.
As insult comics have shown us, making fun of people is a skill. I’ve found that the key is to be funny. If you’re making people laugh, that tends to diffuse the anger a bit. It helps that I often utilize a disarmingly sly grin that says, “Sure we’re all laughing at you, but it’s all in good fun, right?” I also tend to limit my insults to people who I know pretty well. I think most of them realize that what I say is mostly harmless, and write it off as “Cutter being Cutter.”
Perhaps the better question is why. Why would I engage in behavior that makes other people uncomfortable, especially if these people are supposedly my friends?
I wasn’t trying to be malicious. (Well…usually) My intent wasn’t to make people feel bad, I just wanted to make people laugh. It just so happened that the laughs were at the expense of others.
In a way, it was my attempt to help everyone feel like part of the group. Sure, we were laughing at their expense, but at least they were included! I’m also of the opinion that once people learn to laugh about their insecurities, then they’ll start to feel better about them. (Would I feel this way if I had more easily exploited insecurities? That’s a topic for another day.)
To my credit, I don’t mind when people do the same thing to me as long as they’re being good-natured and funny about it. If someone can say something that makes me laugh at my own expense, then I applaud them for it.
After reading these stories, I wonder if maybe I’m not quite as good at making fun of people as I think I am.
In his article, Drew included a clip of this famous scene from Goodfellas (NSFW due to language):
I’ve never gone as far as to break a bottle over someone’s head or to threaten someone with a gun, but I wonder if I’m more like Tommy than I’d like to believe. When I’m doing my thing, the people around me were usually laughing – like I said, I’m funny – but was that laughter somewhat nervous? Were they worried that I’d soon turn my attention to them? I always thought it was harmless fun, but did everyone see it that way?
Does that make me a bully? Am I just a less-racist version of Richie Incognito or a less violent version of Tommy? Did people only associate with me because they felt like they had no choice, and a friend who was a bully was better than no friend at all?
With three kids, I don’t get out much anymore. My social sports days are a thing of the past, and most of my old teammates have faded into memory.
I wonder if any of them are actually happy about that?