Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Academic Bully: Treatment and Side effects

So, you have identified someone with the Academic Bully syndrome and are wondering how to help this unfortunate soul....or at least help yourself by helping them control their symptoms. What do you do?

Honestly, it is easiest is to walk away and never look back, but sometimes this isn't possible. In this case, I have found a treatment that, so far, has been 100% effective.

Before I explain the treatment, let me present my credentials. I have had extensive experience with Academic Bullies on job interviews (lovely interactions that included telling me I was an "idiot" and my science wasn't actually science, for example), on collaborations (where they tried to force me to make them coauthors on projects they had nothing to do with), and in the classroom (students can exhibit this syndrome as well, and it is not pretty). Every interaction is the same. Bully says something rude that I assume is a misunderstanding and I respond diplomatically. After a few assaults I realize I'm being socially hog-tied so this person can psychologically beat me.

The treatment for an academic bully is to let them know that you will will not play by their rules. Every time I stand up to an academic bully, they not only back off, they treat me with respect. Honestly, every time. I won't say any of us are buddies and the respect is often more wary than deeply heart-felt, but I'm a simple person and I'm happy with not being mentally beaten on a regular basis. Now, if you are uncomfortable with threatening to kill someone and put their body in a dumpster, there are other - some may say classier - options to make a bully back off. FSP had a great response to her Academic Bully:

...I said "You must never read any scientific journals. I find that surprising for a senior graduate student. Is that typical of this department?"

This is the "turning the tables" approach where the bully says something that implies something wrong with you, but can also imply something wrong with them. Acmegirl also handled hers with style. She employed the "I'm patiently explaining to you why you are a dumbass" approach. This treatment requires a lot of patience, but often results in such a thorough dosage that the person never displays symptoms around you again.

The trick is developing a way that allows you to get around the social constraint in a way you are comfortable with. Over the years, I have developed what I call the "laughing smackdown". I treat the attack like a joke (afterall, what normal person would seriously say that?) and then, still laughing, I deliver the smackdown. I say something equally outlandish while laughing (like it's a joke). The insertion of humor allows me to give socially acceptable cover to my response and the bully knows that I will not just sit there and take it. The treatment is to let them know you'll stand up for yourself and the trick is to figure out a way to apply your treatment that you are comfortable with.

With any treatment there are potential side effects and dosage issues. How frequently you have to dose your Academic Bully will depend on the individual. Some of mine are good after one dose, others I am still dosing years later. The good news is that it is often painfully obvious when your Academic Bully needs their next dose. An unexpected side effect I have experienced is the academic bully may, in rare cases, fall in love with you. I had this happen once and it took me years to get rid of him.

Obviously, this is not a one-bully fit's all approach. A good example of a different type of bully who will not respond to this treatment is the Princess. For an example of a Princess, read Professor in Training's description of DrMeMeMe. Application of the above treatment to a Princess can cause toxic side effects. Princesses will get haughty and sulky and probably initiate petty thieving, vicious rumors, and other subtle psychological torture. (I found this out the hard way). So you need to diagnose your bully carefully.

So good luck out there, diagnose and treat your bullies carefully and hopefully you may earn yourself a little space.


Nat Blair said...

This post is awesome. I was simultaneously laughing and nodding, "yeah that's right!"

Pure gold River Tam.

Candid Engineer said...

Well written and amusing post. :) This book I'm reading right now suggests saying something to your (male) bully of the effect: "I don't know why I'm so crazy about you when you act like a prick." I think my bully would respond particularly well to this (plays into his male arrogance because I 'love' him and encourages him to change to please the one who 'loves' him). The problem is that I may throw up a bit in my mouth if I attempt such a line.

River Tam said...

Ah, the crush bully! I find those the funniest and the most aggravating. I had one who would get frustrated that I wasn't in love with him and start spreading rumors that I was gay...I guess that was the only way he could justify me not thinking he was all that!

acmegirl said...

Awesome post! I laughed so hard - I'm going to have to try the laughing smackdown on the next bully I encounter. One of these days I'm going to ruin the effect of the "patiently explaining to you why you are a dumbass" technique by just ripping someone's throat out. Need to mix it up a bit...

drdrA said...

O.M.G. So funny. I've had the Crush bully, and the DrMeMeMe... uuugh... that second one is the WORST!

Right now I'm reading a book called 'faculty incivility'... I don't think it will be as entertaining as your post... but will hopefully give me some additional techniques for dealing with bullying in an academic environment.

Eugenie said...

I don't know if you'll end up reading this, but I have to say that these two posts definitely struck a chord with me over this past summer. I had to take a lot of flak over power point presentation for no reason.

I'm not going into details since my blood may boil thinking of it again.... however I got reamed on using a "good-bye" picture on a title page...

also, I like your blog!