The old adage "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," couldn't be further from the truth. The phrase was first uttered by slaves during the time of slavery in the United States. The idea was that if the "overseer" only cursed you and called you humiliating names, that was much better than receiving brutal lashes from his whip. But words can be as brutal as the whip and cause as much pain.
I am writing this column about girls; however, as we all know, boys and men can be bullies, too.
An example of mean behavior is the 2004 Lindsay Lohan movie, "Mean Girls." In the movie, a trio of popular girls terrorizes the other students at their high school. How many teen girls own that movie and watch it repeatedly because it's "funny"? Television shows are also to blame for mean behavior.
There are five types of "Queen Bees":
1. Snobs. These girls judge other girls only in terms of their "wealth" or their connection, if any, to well-known people in the community.
2. Gossips. These girls love to spread bits of negative information, which they tend to embellish.
3. Teasers. These girls enjoy finding a weakness or sore spot in other girls, and needle them about it constantly in a mean way.
4. Bullies. These girls, though rarer than the others, threaten to, or physically hurt, other girls.
5. Traitors. These girls are the most dangerous in the long run. They will gain an outsider's or someone in their own group's complete confidence and then betray her by word or deed. Therefore, they can leave lasting scars.
No girl is ever born mean. An unkind girl is most always the product of her environment. Those girls come from homes where snobbishness, gossiping, sarcastic teasing, bullying and betrayal go on every day. These patterns of behavior are shown to them not only by their parents but also by their siblings, while the parents stand by and condone the actions as they want their daughter to be the most popular regardless of who she has to take out to succeed.
If girls don't feel like they have control in one area of their life, they are likely to be aggressive to gain control in some other area of their life. The girl who claws her way to the top of the social order dictates who can and can't be part of her inner circle of friends. That power helps meet her need for control. The person who controls the information is usually the popular person.
Yet no matter how adept some girls become in their negative schemes to others, they rarely feel good about themselves. In truth, most of them feel miserable and, by lashing out at a targeted person - most often verbally - they try to get other girls to feel miserable, too.
Many people assume that boys are more aggressive than girls. In fact, girls are equally as aggressive. They simply use different methods to express it. Boys generally use aggressive tactics like hitting, fighting, shoving or kicking. Girls are usually very sneaky and hurt by spreading rumors, whispering as their target walks by, talking loudly about a party to which she wasn't invited, making fun of her clothing, giving her the silent treatment, and telling others not to be friends with her.
Researchers call this "relational aggression," (www.hopehouseonline.org/pages/girls.shtml), which includes any behavior that intentionally harms another person's self-esteem friendships or social status. It can happen between close friends or in ways that damage a person's relationship with a larger group of peers - and it begins early.
The "mean girls" behavior is frequently associated with girls around 11 or 12 years old. Bullying is often seen in children, both boys and girls, as young as 3. But social aggression is tricky to deal with. Adults often don't see it because it's hard to catch. Adults also tend to underestimate how distressing it is for the children involved, particularly because both the victim and the aggressor downplay its significance. And even when teachers or parents do suspect something serious, they often don't know what to do.
The stereotype of the mean girls' target is someone who looks or acts different. It could be the girl who is overweight, the girl who is not as attractive, or a girl who makes a mistake - like saying "hi" to the popular girl's boyfriend. Often, though, the nastiness is focused on someone who is just minding her own business but appears to be weak or passive.
Relational aggression brings a host of problems. Victims suffer self-esteem damage and are lonelier, more submissive, and more socially anxious than other children. Ironically, the aggressors suffer some of the same problems. As with all bullies, research shows they feel lonely, have low self-esteem, and are likely to become socially rejected or victims themselves.
School and the community aren't the only places where mean girls operate. Today they have a new forum for humiliating their victims: cyberspace. MySpace and Facebook are tools for bullying.
Being insulted or harassed at school is much different than being insulted or harassed online. At school, maybe a couple of other people could find out what happened. When something embarrassing is posted on your Facebook or MySpace page, hundreds or even thousands of people might see it.
The Internet also gives mean girls an easy way to hide. The bully believes that because she's behind a screen she's not responsible - that she can say whatever she wants. What bullies need to understand is that whenever they are on the screen, they leave a fingerprint. Nasty or humiliating comments posted today can stay online for years - even after they're deleted. Facebook has just developed new tools to deter cyberbullying. Cyber stalking laws are now in place and if committed against someone under the age of 16, it can be considered a felony.
Sadly enough, bullying also takes place into adulthood and in the workplace. The Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that roughly one-fourth of employed Americans have reported bullying at work. That's more than 30 million people.
Workplace bullying is often hard to identify and even harder to manage. It comes in many forms, occurs at every level, and is often unnoticed and unaddressed until it leads to more devastating consequences. According to research, the majority of targets (not the bullies) are the ones who are fired, forced out due to medical reasons, forced to transfer to another department or quit.
Bullying has gone on through generations. Will it ever stop? NO. But more and more is being done to help and educate. Hang in there. You have so much more to look forward to in your life. Don't let the bully win. Surround yourself with your true friends.
Judi Hendrickson of Wheeling is the co-author with Dr. Jeanne Finstein of "Walking Pleasant Valley" and is working with Finstein on their second book, "Walking Woodsdale." She teaches etiquette and presents programs on Tea Time Traditions, the History and Etiquette of Tea and Wedding Traditions.