Note: This is part one of a two part article. Please see part two for how to defend yourself and recover from subtle bullying.

Bullying is not Just Outward Physical or Verbal Aggression

Bullying is a type of violence inflicted upon an individual by another person or by a group of people. Bullies can be children, teenagers, young adults, middle age, or elderly.

Many people are aware of the typical acts of bullying that include many of the following: outward, physical aggression, such as hitting, punching, shoving, and tripping which are all very easy to observe and substantiate. Bullying can also include outward verbal aggression such as name calling, yelling, and swearing. These behaviors are very easy to detect and have gotten a lot of recent attention in the media, schools, and workplaces. But there are other, more subtle behaviors of bullying that are harder to detect and have slipped by almost unnoticed for too long. This article discusses and describes subtle bullying as a form of violence inflicted upon a person by either an individual or a group of bullies.

Facial Expressions

The subtle bully can use her (or his) facial expressions to intimidate, demean, belittle, shame, and undermine (all forms of attack) the confidence of her target victim. These facial expressions usually take the form of eye rolling, staring, brow lowering, brow rising, head slightly shaking, or head tilting with brow raised. The subtle bully exhibits these behaviors either while the victim is talking or in reference to the victim when the bully is talking to him or about him to others.

Tone of Voice

The subtle bully can use her tone of voice to attack her victim. Sarcasm, used by the bully to ridicule, mock, scorn, and marginalize her victim, can take the more subtle form of a tone of voice rather than a more outward, obvious attack of specific, spoken damaging words. The subtle bully launches her attack on her intended victim not so much by the words that she says, but instead, by HOW she says them. Rather than allowing the sound of her voice to overtly reveal her emotions of contempt, hatred, and rage towards her victim through shouting, she tones her voice down to soft-sounding language with the undertones of corrosiveness, mordancy, and acerbity.

Fake Tones of Warmth

Another side to the subtle bully's tone of voice is that of mimicking kindness, warmth, caring, and flattery. The subtle bully makes her tone of voice and choice of words SOUND appealing and authentic; however, her underlying emotions for her victim having nothing to do with his well-being, but instead, have everything to do with what she wants him to do for HER, so she manipulates and lures her target victim into doing something that she wants him to do, or to appear to others that she cares for her victim.

Flattery with a Twist

Subtle bullies frequently use flattery as bait. Their flattery or complimentary words and comments directed to their intended target are false, fake, and with the underlying, subtle intentions of malice. The bully could either hold the intention of luring her target to do something that she wants him to do, thereby manipulating him with the flattery, or she could be setting him up to reveal information about himself with the intentions of using what he says to mock him, scoff at him, and ridicule him either later to his face (direct attack), during a social situation (public shaming), or behind his back as she talks about him with others for the sake of rallying others against him (mob bullying).

The Good Samaritan Gone Wrong

The subtle bully can use acts of kindness, helpfulness, or doing her intended target a favor. On the surface, the bully appears to be a wonderful, generous person, but underneath this façade, the bully's true intentions are anything but that. Her true intentions usually take two forms. One is that she does her bullying target a huge favor for the sake of putting him into her debt. She sets her trap with the favor, he takes her up on it, and now he is indebted to her. He usually does not realize the debt until she reminds him of it later by asking him to do things for her. By then, it is too late for him to undo what happened. She has fooled him into thinking her intentions were purely honorable-but they weren't.

The other form is that the Good Samaritan, subtle bully will help her target out in some area of his life. Possibly by coaching him, tutoring him, mentoring him; but instead of having authentic intentions of altruism towards her target, she is grooming him to be abused by her later. This abuse could be sexual in nature or for some other self-seeking, ill intent.

The Good Samaritan bully acts like she wants to be your friend, help you out, be your support mentor, but her underlying intentions are to USE you somehow to her benefit, not yours.

Questions that are NOT Seeking Answers

The subtle bully asks questions NOT for the sake of finding out useful information, but instead, with hidden, ulterior motives. These motives can take several different aims. One is that the question is really more of the bully making a critical, inflammatory statement aimed at defaming, humiliating, or putting the target victim in a bad light so as to damage his reputation.

Another underhanded practice used by subtle bullies is to fire off questions at their target victim so as to shake him up, rattle him, or otherwise manipulate him into losing his composure putting him on the spot, to instill anger, or fear.

Additionally, the subtle bully uses questions to glean information from her target that she can turn around and use it against him at a later time. Many times, this bully revises her victim's own words against him for the sake of belittling him, marginalizing him, or discrediting him.

Difficult to Prove

Subtle bullying is characterized by the underlying INTENT of the bully. This intent is difficult to discern or identify since it does not involve easily recognized actions or words that have been previously identified with the actions of what society knows as bullying, most notably, outward physical or verbal aggression.

This is why subtle bullies frequently get away with their bullying. Since their intent is difficult to discern, it is hard to prove beyond any reasonable doubt. This is why it seldom works to call the bully out; they can simply deny it on the grounds of the lack of concrete evidence, and then turn the table back onto their accusers claiming that THEY are the ones attacking them, or that THEY are the ones with some type of emotional problem or issue.

Note: Please see part two of this article for how to defend yourself and recover from subtle bullying.

Copyright © 2017 Timothy G. Weih, Ph.D.
University of Northern Iowa, USA

About Author / Additional Info:
Timothy G. Weih is an associate professor of education at the University of Northern Iowa, USA, and teaches elementary teaching methods courses.