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Differences between Rude, Mean and Bullying Behavior

By: Signe Whitson is a licensed therapist, national educator on bullying, and author of three books

 

Differences between Rude, Mean and Bullying Behavior

It is important to distinguish between rude, mean and bullying so that teachers, school administrators, police, youth workers, parents and kids all know what to pay attention to and when to intervene. As we have heard too often in the news, a child's future may depend on a non-jaded adult's ability to discern between rudeness at the bus stop and life-altering bullying.

I have already begun to see that gratuitous references to bullying are creating a bit of a "little boy who cried wolf" phenomena. In other words, if kids and parents improperly classify rudeness and mean behavior as bullying -- whether to simply make conversation or to bring attention to their short-term discomfort -- we all run the risk of becoming so sick and tired of hearing the word that this actual life-and-death issue among young people loses its urgency as quickly as it rose to prominence.

  • Rude is: Inadvertently saying or doing something that hurts someone else.

From kids, rudeness might look more like burping in someone's face, jumping ahead in line, bragging about achieving the highest grade or even throwing a crushed up pile of leaves in someone's face. On their own, any of these behaviors could appear as elements of bullying, but when looked at in context, incidents of rudeness are usually spontaneous, unplanned inconsideration, based on thoughtlessness, poor manners or narcissism, but not meant to actually hurt someone.

  • Mean is: Purposefully saying or doing something to hurt someone once (or maybe twice).

The main distinction between "rude" and "mean" behavior has to do with intention; while rudeness is often unintentional, mean behavior very much aims to hurt or depreciate someone. Kids are mean to each other when they criticize clothing, appearance, intelligence, coolness or just about anything else they can find to denigrate. Meanness also sounds like words spoken in anger -- impulsive cruelty that is often regretted in short order. Very often, mean behavior in kids is motivated by angry feelings and/or the misguided goal of propping themselves up in comparison to the person they are putting down. Commonly, meanness in kids sounds an awful lot like:

  • "Are you seriously wearing that sweater again? Didn't you just wear it, like, last week? Get a life."
    • "You are so fat/ugly/stupid/gay."
    • "I hate you!"

 

  • Bullying is: Intentionally aggressive behavior, repeated over time, that involves an imbalance of power.

Experts agree that bullying entails three key elements: an intent to harm, a power imbalance and repeated acts or threats of aggressive behavior. Kids who bully say or do something intentionally hurtful to others and they keep doing it, with no sense of regret or remorse -- even when targets of bullying show or express their hurt or tell the aggressors to stop.  Bullying may be physical, verbal, relational or carried out via technology.