Words Can Never Hurt Me – REALLY?

“Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but words can never hurt me”.

Were you taught this witty retort to playground  and schoolyard taunts?
Did it work?
And most importantly – is it true?

As we embark on this journey to transform the language and labels of workplace bullying, it’s fitting that we go back to the beginning. The schoolyard is the source of plenty of emotional, social, and physical pain and trauma inflicted by children upon children. We call it “bullying” [let’s explore the evolution of that word sometime] and it’s not acceptable. 

And the words DO hurt: teasing, names, intimidation, and ostracism hit as hard as a kick in the gut, and we’ve all heard the horrific consequences – words can leave lasting scars; words can be fatal.

Kids, we assume, may not know any better, and it’s our responsibility as adults
to teach them right and wrong. 

Fast forward a few years. Whether we suffered in the schoolyard, or inflicted pain on the playground, or stood by feeling helpless – we’re all grown-ups now, with a job and grown-up responsibilities. We’re supposed to know better. But our language hasn’t grown up. Whenever workplace behaviors or interactions cause discomfort or distress, we still revert to language and labels that blame and shame, that vilify or victimize – the language of workplace bullying.

Does the person our organization identifies as a “bully” have any motivation to self-reflect or take responsibility? Tough to do when you’re already labeled as a villain, and probably irredeemable, at that. “Bob, step into my office. Your direct reports say you’re a bully.”  Probably a short, unproductive, and defensive conversation with little incentive for insight, or openness to interventions.

Same question – does the label of “victim” encourage the employee who feels targeted to self-reflect, take any responsibility for the relationship? So often the “victim” is twice victimized – considered a whiner or slacker. Or the “victim” may be automatically absolved, or assumed to be – and treated as if – powerless.

What are the connotations to you of the word “bully”? How about your experiences when someone is called “victim”? Either word carries a heavy burden of blame or shame. These words not only hurt the individual thus labeled – the schoolyard language of “bullying” as applied to the workplace hurts all employees, hurts the organization’s reputation, resources, and productivity. 

In the playground, we’re pretty clear about the behaviors that contribute to the meaning of the word “bullying”. In the workplace, it gets murky. Bullying has become the “waste-basket term to define unresolved workplace disputes…the default label for preventable workplace conflict” according to Dr. Doron Samuell, CEO of Corporate Health Services in Australia, which has arguably the strongest workplace anti-bullying law in the world. Workplace anti-bullying policies and proposed legislation include definitions so broad as to be meaningless – or, at least, eternally litigated – while meantime, all the folks in a workplace impacted by distressful or inappropriate interpersonal communication, behavior, or relationships, are still hurting.

What’s your definition of workplace bullying? When the word “bullying” rears its head, does your business spend more time and resources getting mired in the muck – figuring out if the words fit your policy definition – rather than addressing the underlying behaviors and over-arching issues? That hurts everyone. 

Grown-ups are supposed to know better. It’s time to grow up the language of bullying, and move from labels, legislation and litigation to behaviors and actions. Rather than hurt with our words, let’s treat everyone with humanity and dignity, and restore respect in our adult workplaces.

We might even become better role models for the kids on the playgrounds.


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