Bullying moves from the schoolyard to the internet

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

When we were children, we attempted to deflect the words of bullies (or just other insecure children), by reciting this chant. The message was, of course, that we could tolerate name-calling or verbal taunts, as long as there was no physical violence.

In truth, though, the words did hurt us. We probably all have memories of childhood hecklers, who usually relayed their stinging words in a singsong or mocking tone. For myself, my family name was very difficult to spell and even harder to pronounce. It was the target of many rude comments that included words that did, indeed, hurt me.

As we grew up and matured in our interactions with others, we learned that words do hurt almost as much as those sticks and stones through experience and formal education.

That is, until recently ...

At some point in the last year or so, it has become acceptable for grown, seemingly mature adults to use negative words without fear of reprimand or repercussion. The bullies on the playground have been allowed out into the world, to taunt those who are not like them or who make them more insecure. There is no teacher or principal around to stop them or teach them that their words are hurtful and wrong.

How do we respond? How do we change the tone of the conversation? How do we start using our words for good?

Another childhood memory revolves around my mother’s philosophy. At the dinner table, my mother used to tell me I had to try something before I could say I didn’t like it. She was the closet liberal in the family, I believe. She never held a grudge, even against people who wronged her.

My mother taught me to always keep an open mind, about food and about people. She also did not judge people or speak in negative terms about anyone, even though she certainly had great cause to do so about a number of people in her life. In her mind, negativity accomplished nothing.

What is negativity accomplishing for us now? Once again, we are using our words to make it clear that we will not tolerate people who are different, who are not like us. Some of those statements are made in person, mostly in “safe” group settings.

However, most of the hurtful words today are being transmitted via electronic communication. We are tweeting and texting and posting on social media, typing words that we might never dare say in person. Virtual taunts are also “safe,” as there is no face to reflect the damage done, no body language of shock and distress, but only words on a screen.

So why is it suddenly OK to hurt someone with words? The schoolyard bullies have become the cyber bullies. They hide behind technology. Worse, they may have lost touch completely with the notion that there are real human beings reading the words they’ve posted. Albert Einstein once wrote, “I believe that the abominable deterioration of ethical standards stems primarily from the mechanization and depersonalization of our lives.”

We can stop this trend in its virtual tracks. We can each take the time to think about the words we are posting, to think about the real humans that will see and be affected by those words, before we hit the magical button that sends our words out into the world. We can take the time to share words for good across the virtual world and the real world.

Using our words for good takes little time and generates amazing results. Perhaps we can start a ripple effect. Choose words for good today, with everyone you meet. Note the relief on their faces and maybe even a change in their attitude. Post words for good on social media. Soon the negative words will be outnumbered and we will (hopefully) understand once again that words, whether in the virtual world or the real word, truly can hurt almost as much as those sticks and stones.

Pat Fontana is a Cary-based business writer and communications trainer.