Daily Archives: August 23, 2011

Aggression Part I: Writer see, Writer show

Mean girls and bully boys – remnants of childhood — well, mine anyway, and I know I’m not alone. After spending an internet hour looking for photographs to augment this blog, I had to hit the gym to work off the anxiety. Do a search on ‘bullying, images, free’ to see what I mean. Ugly stuff.

I haven’t seen or done any research on the specific subject of writers and interpersonal aggression, but I suspect many have horror stories. Perhaps the not-so-happy experiences compelled us to write? Indeed, fiction  offers safe haven, a world where happy endings transcend ugly beginnings. But, that’s, well . . . fiction.

What can we do with the memories and how do we proceed now with difficult people?

Welcome to the wonderful world of interpersonal workplace aggression. As with the phenomenon of stress, we can recognize interpersonal aggression, manage it, and use it in plotting and character development.

Interpersonal Workplace Aggression is a neutered term for hostile verbal, physical, overt and covert actions one or more people take against others in an organization. My specific research is in the public sector workplace, but this applies to any setting where groups of people come together for professional endeavor.

Here’s a shocker. Bullies don’t go away when we graduate from high school. An estimated 41.4% of U.S. workers experience active psychological aggression at work (FBI, 2004; Schat, Frone, & Kelloway, 2006).


Harvey Hornstein (1976, p. 16) argued context precipitates aggression. We humans tend to sort others into categories — ‘them’ and ‘us’. If there’s any kind of threat (oh, say for example, an economic crisis, or a losing sports team), then we often assert ‘our’ interests over the interests of ‘others’. (This is why, I suppose, the current San Francisco Giants win/loss record traumatizes my family. We know too many Diamondback fans.)

The range of nastiness one human being can impose upon another astounds me. In my work, I collect case instances of interpersonal aggression ranging from direct active, physical attacks to very subtle, passive offenses. Take a look at a sample of actions (and I wish I could claim these were unique events) I’ve documented in my surveys and interviews with individuals at all organizational levels in the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

Let me reiterate -– these examples are not single episodes and represent a decade of interviews in different geographic regions of the United States. The actual incident lists fill hundreds of pages.

Direct, Active, Verbal: name-calling, profanity, insults, patronizing tone, shouting

Direct, Active, Physical: unwanted touch, pushing/throwing chairs, books, pencils, dogs, and even people at other human beings

Direct, Passive, Verbal: mimicry while another person is speaking, muttered interruptions, one-liners offered to distract listeners from the speaker

Direct, Passive, Physical: eye-rolling, making faces, urinating in the department coffee pot every morning (Yes, I know. It put me off caffeine for a few days, too.)

Indirect, Active, Verbal: gossip, innuendo, written slurs, internet stalking

Indirect, Active, Physical: moving materials someone needs to do their work, establishing rules or situations to prevent people from sitting, walking, standing, using the restroom, or eating

Indirect, Passive, Verbal: ignoring someone’s phone calls, memos, or emails, deliberately misinterpreting another person’s communication

Indirect, Passive, Physical: leaving the room when the target enters, turning away from the target, shutting one’s office door at exactly the moment the target walks by, using a phone at the moment the target tries to speak

Most of us may recognize an action or two we might have taken, observed or experienced from this sample of incidents. Often, we don’t realize how actions might harm others.

In this first of two blogs devoted to Aggression, I hope to help writers see psychological aggression in various scenarios and offer some ways to show this phenomenon in our writing.

As writers, we can describe these behaviors or offer representative dialogue to demonstrate tension between characters or between a character and an institution.

In two weeks, I’ll discuss ways to manage these situations in our lives and how we can give our characters techniques to disrupt their bullies. Naming interpersonal aggression as bullying goes a long way towards eliminating the instances.

Have you been bullied?
Have you seen it happen?
How can you show psychological or indirect aggression in your stories?


Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2004). Workplace violence:  Issues in response. Washington, DC:  U.S. Department of Justice. [Retrieved 2/26/08]

Hornstein, H. A. (1976). Cruelty and kindness. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Schat, A. C. H., Frone, M. R., & Kelloway, E. K. (2006). Prevalence of workplace aggression in the US workforce:  Findings from a national study. In E. K. Kelloway, J. Barling & J. J. Hurrell (Eds.), Handbook of workplace violence (pp. 47-89). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


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