Jennie Withers is a former teacher and co-author of the recently-published Hey, Back Off!: Tips for Stopping Teen Harassment with Phyllis Hendrickson. CiviliNation caught up with Jennie to talk about her new book and her interest in helping reduce bullying and harassment.
Passive personalities should recognize the need to become more assertive. Passive personalities should not believe they are at fault or deserve to be harassed.
CiviliNation: What inspired you to write Hey, Back Off!?
Jennie Withers: I was teaching Technical Reading and Writing to ninth graders and part of my curriculum included teaching the children how to get and keep a job. I had already written my first book, Hey, Get a Job! and was teaching one of the sections from it, namely how not to get fired by committing workplace harassment. It quickly became apparent to me how little teens know about harassment, and yet harassment issues in high schools were beginning to come to the forefront, due in large part to cyberbullying. I decided then what the subject for my next book would be.
Interestingly, what I found is that even though I set out to write a book for teens and their parents, harassment is not just a teen issue. I have been blown away by the accounts from adults about cyberbullying that is happening in places of business and in social circles. I heard everything from the enamored co-worker who won’t stop sending erotic e-cards (yes, there is such a thing), to slandering another person through social networks and emails in order to ensure that a person doesn’t get elected to city council. The problem of harassment is ageless, and I like to think the solutions are ageless as well.
CiviliNation: How do you define aggression, bullying and harassment?
Jennie Withers: Aggression is the behavior carried out by the harasser, also known as people with an aggressive personality. The two possible goals of a harasser are quid pro quo and a hostile environment. Quid pro quo in Latin means “this for that” for example, “if you have sex with me, you will get the promotion you want.” It could also mean the harasser threatens to treat you worse if you don’t do what he or she wants, for example, “if you don’t write the report for me, I’ll post on Facebook that you …” Quid pro quo is a deal being with the harasser always getting the best end of the bargain. The harasser’s price is always high and he or she risks nothing in the exchange.
A hostile environment is the creation of an uncomfortable and/or unsafe setting for the victim. When a victim feels he or she is in a hostile environment, it can interfere with work, home life and social life. The harasser steals security from the victim and as a result, he or she may no longer excel at, enjoy, or even participate in the things they normally would. Cyberbullying most often fits this classification.
Harassment is a term that covers a wide array of behaviors that are offensive, disturbing, upsetting or threatening. Harassment can be verbal, physical, psychological, visual and sexual. When you are the victim, harassment can make you feel unsafe and insecure.
There are five categories of harassment:
- Bullying – a repeated act of aggression for the purpose of harming someone physically or psychologically.
- Sexual harassment – sexual in nature and can be quid pro quo or hostile environment, but the intent is to embarrass, intimidate, scare and confuse victims which interferes with their ability to participate in normal life.
- Stalking – the victim is unable to ever be away from the harasser, making them fear for their safety.
- Hazing – a deliberate and planned form of harassment used by groups to maintain a pecking order through quid pro quo harassment.
- Cyberbullying – the use of cell phones, Internet or other digital devices to send messages or images that are intended to embarrass, slander or harm another person, in other words, the harassing behaviors take place in cyberspace.
The key is to remember that no matter how detailed the definition of harassment, it is arbitrary. If the victim feels that he or she is being harassed, then it is harassment.
CiviliNation: In your book you talk about “passive” and “aggressive” personalities. What are these and why do they matter in a conflict context?
Jennie Withers: If there were no passive or aggressive personalities involved then conflicts could be solved quickly and in an amicable manner. Those who avoid negative conflict, such as harassment, are assertive personalities. These are the people who know how to act in their own best interest without hurting others, stand up for themselves, be proactive and honest, become a respected leader and team member, and cultivate and maintain self-esteem and self-respect. Assertive personalities don’t participate in negative conflicts personally or professionally, and therefore they are successful and happy people.
The victims of conflict situations are passive personalities. These are people who let others make decisions for them, believe their thoughts and feelings don’t count, put themselves last, strive to please others, fear the loss of approval, hate conflict, fear responsibility and lack self-esteem and self-respect. Passive personalities are targets for harassers because passive people won’t stand up for themselves. If passive people want to stop being victims, want to avoid negative conflict, they have to become assertive.
As you have probably deduced, aggressive people are the bullies of our society. Aggressive personalities can be verbally abusive (loud, bossy, sarcastic, gossip, tease), physically abusive, obsessed with winning, controlling, egotistical (their own needs always come first), angry and disrespectful. Because control and winning are at the heart of a harassers’ needs, they choose those people who are easily controlled and those conflicts that are easily won. That is why passive personalities are their targets.
Passive personalities should recognize the need to become more assertive. Passive personalities should not believe they are at fault or deserve to be harassed. Harassment is never the victim’s fault, and nobody deserves to have their quality of life diminished by a bully. Harassers try to convince victims that they “asked for it” or that “you just can’t take a joke.” Don’t make harassment easier on the perpetrator by buying into this line of thought. Place blame where it needs to be, on the bully who is violating your personal rights. Believing harassment is not your fault and you don’t deserve it is the first step to becoming an assertive personality.
CiviliNation: What role do you think technology plays in bullying and harassment?
Jennie Withers: Without technology, we would not have cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is a recent phenomenon. Therefore, federal and state governments, businesses and schools are all playing catch up with legislation and education. Cyberbullying is harassment made easy. Many people will do things on the Internet or a cell phone that they would never do in person. The reason may be that the bully is not in the physical vicinity of the victim. The harasser doesn’t see the victim’s reaction, therefore any feeling of remorse or guilt is far removed. Because it’s easy, cyberbullying is the ultimate act of cowardice.
Technology is both a blessing and a curse. Technology is a powerful tool that allows us to connect the world, save our natural resources and learn an infinite amount of information about any topic we choose. In the words of the comic book charater Spiderman’s uncle, “With great power comes great responsibility.” It seems there are a large number of people who have chosen to be irresponsible and participate in cyberbullying. In short, technology is the current tool of choice for harassers. But, it’s role is as a tool. It’s aggressive personalities who are choosing to abuse technology.
CiviliNation: CiviliNation’s focus is on online hostility and adult cyberbullying. What information in your book is useful for adults who are not parents to know as well?
Jennie Withers: We currently have a culture of aggression which includes people of all ages. I chose to write Hey, Back Off! for teens because of my experience with that age group. It is difficult to change the current perception that life is a competition that must be won at all costs when that is what kids constantly see around them. So yes, it is important to try and train kids to be assertive early, and teach their parents that their kids will be assertive if they themselves model this behavior.
But in order to change an entire culture, our society as a whole has to learn how to be assertive. For example, how great would it be to turn on the television and hear presidential candidates speaking about the issues that face our country instead of running down their opponent? Hey, Back Off! can begin to teach us, in simple terms, how to be nice to each other and how to stand up for ourselves without hurting others. Parent or not, all adults have a responsibility to create a positive culture. My incredibly optimistic vision is for us to become a culture where people know how to work together, play together and speak to one another in a way that creates assertive personalities and win-win situations.
The book is written primarily for teens and their parents, but the information is universal. Regardless of age or social status, everyone needs to know what harassment is, what a harasser’s goals are, the personality types that determine whether we are a bully, victim or have the ability to stand up for oneself in order to lead a happy, successful life. And last, Hey, Back Off! teaches how to deal with harassment when it occurs. An adult reader without children would only have to replace the word school with work or social situation in order to make the tips for dealing with harassment applicable to them. For example, the first tip to dealing with cyberbullying is, What to say. The advice: Nothing, unless you can say it in person. It’s simple, but imagine how many cyberbullying situations are exacerbated because the dialogue remains in the impersonal environment of cyberspace. Hey, Back Off! educates and offers advice in an attempt to make our culture better. Last time I checked, we all have a stake in the society we create.