Aggression Part I: Writer see, Writer show

23 Aug

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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28 responses to “Aggression Part I: Writer see, Writer show

  1. Janis McCurry

    August 23, 2011 at 7:02 AM

    Liz, most often in my experience, the incidents are passive in deliverance, which makes it harder to identify because I tend to think, “they didn’t realize they were doing it.” Mainly, because how could they do something hurtful purposefully? As an aside, I love the term “passive aggressive” for the dichotomy of it. I’ve known many people who operate that way. The “why” of that is a whole other study.

    This is a fascinating topic. I can’t wait to read part 2. Thanks.

  2. Florence Fois

    August 23, 2011 at 7:52 AM

    Very interesting post, Liz. I think the passive/aggressive thing is more common amount girls and escalated to that one or two in each group who use that behavior for control. Since it is a control issue, for some it escalates to each of the levels you mentioned until it becomes dangerous.

    The school bully, the domineering friend and the abusive husband or parent are a fascinating group of characters to use in our work. They can provide your MC with all kinds of problems to overcome … especially those who consider themselves someone who “loves” their targets … or the “I was only kidding” group. A thoughtful subject … look forward to part 2 🙂

    • Liz Fredericks

      August 23, 2011 at 8:15 AM

      Hi Florence,

      Excellent comment! You’re absolutely correct about the tactics (ex, passive aggressive) being associated with gender. Females tend to use indirect and verbal at a greater frequency than men. Guys fall into the direct, physical category more often. An interesting twist of the workplace is that once we add hierarchy into the mix then tactics are less about gender (though that still matters) and more about organizational rank. In general terms, whether an aggressor is direct or indirect (e.g., sneaky) has more to do with their target’s power. High-level peers gravitate to indirect, passive challenges. It’s simplistic, but generally, the more powerful are more indirect and passive. Thanks so much for your comment.

  3. Liz Fredericks

    August 23, 2011 at 8:02 AM

    Indirect and passive is the worst! I think that’s why gas-lighting can be such an effective and frightening plot device. How can you confront an unseen enemy? In terms of charitable interpretation, you’re a kind person so, naturally, you’ll give people the benefit of the doubt in those circumstances. When you see a pattern of incidents, it’s time to speak to the person. Their offenses might still be unintentional. If that’s the case, aren’t you doing them a favor. Most people would want to know if they hurt others. Gosh, I sound quite pollyanna, but I assert Anne Frank’s position – most people are good.

  4. Valerie Robertson (@valrobertson)

    August 23, 2011 at 8:21 AM

    Thanks for talking about this, Liz. One of the most bizarre behaviors I’ve seen recently was the attack apology video that made the rounds yesterday on twitter, where a Fox News commentor used an apology as a framework to insult and castigate musician Chris Brown over his history of domestic violence. Many people seemed to find it entertaining, as it was retweeted four or five times in my stream. I thought it was offensive enough to stop watching 15 seconds into the two-minute video, when it became apparent what was going on.

    I’m also looking forward to part 2, and boggling at the thought of throwing an innocent dog at another human being.

    • Liz Fredericks

      August 23, 2011 at 8:37 AM

      Wow Valerie – I hadn’t seen the attack apology, but human beings are so darn creative in both the good and bad things they do each other. When I did a quick search for pictures on bullying, I opted out of posting anything. Cruelty is stunning. Along those lines, the ‘dog as aerial weapon’ was a stunner. What’s worse is I didn’t share single incidents. According to my notes, a chihuahua, a lab puppy and a poodle were used at different times in different scenarios. And forgive my dark humor on this – but the selection of weaponry? Really? A puppy? Why not something heavy? Something with scales or claws? A Siamese cat seems more logical ammo.

  5. Judi L. Romaine

    August 23, 2011 at 8:27 AM

    Interesting. There are so many ways to interpret human behavior. Interesting blog. I am of the bend see behavior as who we are ‘being’ created as we begin to have identities (personalities) or character. It’s a bit of a different way to look at human actions but gives me personally a bit more power. It is a place to stand where one is cause in the universe and then there are circumstances to interact with. Not that there aren’t mean people out there still, but coming from I am the source of my reality, it is possible to bring empty and meaningless to who people are being – and not react to situations as ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ And then sometimes it’s not possible and as a human being, I react and resist and make it wrong. Again, good blog to consider how I want to write about bad behavior.

  6. Liz Fredericks

    August 23, 2011 at 8:42 AM

    Hi Judi – There’s a really fascinating line of research on the social construction of aggression and how people assume roles (e.g., a bully was once a victim or some people bully to defend other victims). If you’re interested in more along those lines, check out Harvey Hornstein’s work. His insights in ‘Brutal Bosses and Their Prey’ are startling. Thank you for stopping by the blog.

  7. Steph

    August 23, 2011 at 9:01 AM

    Liz, what an interesting blog. Grade school was terrible for me because of bullying. Way back then, there was no such thing as bullying. Kids just had to put up with it. At my current job, the owner and his son have a problem blowing up and screaming whenever anyone makes a mistake. However, the lessons I learned when I was younger come in handy now. I don’t take any crap off of either of them. It does make for a stressful day every now and then. Only 1 1/2 more years and I’m done.
    Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

    • Liz Fredericks

      August 23, 2011 at 10:34 AM

      I’m so sorry you had to go through bullying, Steph. It’s certainly something that sticks with us. Your response in challenging the problem is very healthy. I’m planning a future blog interview of someone who researches victimology and they’ll have some good tips for adults. The scenario you describe of a sole proprietorship and family members who bully is a huge problem. I’m glad you’re handling it. At least, you can obtain good fodder for your manuscripts.

      • Steph

        August 23, 2011 at 2:46 PM

        I’ll be very interested in the future blog and the tips for adults. I think this is a huge problems and it stays with us for a long time. I actually have a bully in one of my manuscripts but now I think I’ll go back and add to his character. This has given me a lot to think about.

  8. Clarissa Southwick

    August 23, 2011 at 9:13 AM

    What a great reference list for writers. I think the signs of aggression we see in most books: clenching of fist, grinding of teeth, striking the table, etc. are so overdone. You’ve given us a whole new realm to play in.

    As I was reading this, I kept picturing the first season of The Office, with Jim putting Dwight’s stapler in Jello. That’s got to be a great show for picking up on hostile behaviors. All very helpful for writers. Now, if I can just translate the aggressive office behavior to an 1847 wagon train.. .

    • Liz Fredericks

      August 23, 2011 at 10:38 AM

      ‘The Office’ is funny to people precisely because they’ve observed these outrageous behaviors in real settings. You’ve got a tough one with an 1847 wagon train . . . try gossip and innuendo – simply timeless.

  9. johannaharness

    August 23, 2011 at 10:00 AM

    Thanks for this list, Liz. It’s helpful and sad at the same time.

  10. Liz Fredericks

    August 23, 2011 at 10:41 AM

    I agree, Johanna. There were a couple of videos I ran across when searching for images. Like Val’s observation above, I couldn’t watch past a few seconds. The best response is awareness. You can’t challenged anything you can’t name or describe. If we describe it, if we capture it in books, then we might help someone identify and challenge bullying in their life. I think it’s especially important in young adult, but I see people of all ages suffering in these situations.

  11. Carley Ash

    August 23, 2011 at 12:22 PM

    Before reading this, I would have said I never get bullied. Now I’m not so sure. This is great information for character development. Thanks Liz.

    • Liz Fredericks

      August 23, 2011 at 2:40 PM

      I’m sorry to hear that, Carley. Hopefully, it’s a misunderstanding, but if not – as you blogged a few weeks ago – it’s always good content for our writing.

  12. Peggy Staggs

    August 23, 2011 at 1:51 PM

    The worst case of bulling I experienced and witnessed was in my junior year. It happened in Prattville, Alabama and the teacher—yes, the teacher—was totally awful to me. I remember being thrown out of class because she was having a bad day. By the end of the year I was sure my name was Hey, You.
    What was worse for me, was when the school was integrated. The US Marshalls brought four black girls to school every day. And every day that very same teacher would make the one black girl in our class stand up and read. Never anyone else. My heart still hurts for her. We were both powerless and outcasts in the teacher’s eyes. The girl because she was black and me because I was from the north. I could handle the old bat, but that poor girl was a lot more courageous than I could have been. Not fun times.

  13. Liz Fredericks

    August 23, 2011 at 2:44 PM

    Peggy, what an awful experience! There was a period of time when parents weren’t welcome in the schools.That model has shifted, but I know not all parents would be comfortable challenging an abusive system. You’ve a great and horrifying perspective having experienced integration – I think it affirms the importance to offering support to people who are targeted. Simply knowing one other person has your back makes an enormous difference.

  14. maryvine

    August 23, 2011 at 2:53 PM

    Great blog for writers, Liz. Great ideas for characters. Since I’ve worked in special ed since 1988, I tend to think about what a difficult person is doing and then analyze it in my head and approach that person as I would someone with a communication problem. Isn’t that kind of what it is anyway? 🙂
    With students I’d really only come upon bullying once – four 6th graders ganging up on one girl in a computer lab. I took care of it immediately. No way can I sit back and let it happen. Thanks!

    • Liz Fredericks

      August 23, 2011 at 3:24 PM

      Thinking of the issue as a communication problem is ideal. Then, we’re not necessarily making inaccurate judgments. I love the idea of giving people the benefit of the doubt unless it’s clear that there isn’t any doubt. Thus, your immediate response in the computer lab is excellent. Good for you!!!

  15. lynn mapp

    August 23, 2011 at 4:47 PM

    Liz, thank you for the blog. You’ve given us a lot to think about. As an adult, bullying at the workplace struck home. Yet, my workplace is a school. That is the very worst place for this kind of thing to go on. I’m no Pollyanna, but children should feel safe at school. It’s something I can’t put up with. Rrrrrrr.

  16. Liz Fredericks

    August 23, 2011 at 5:03 PM

    There’s quite a bit of research on adult bullying in schools – elementary through college. You’re right about a school setting being the worst place for that behavior. I agree with you on not putting up with it. I suspect you use it as an opportunity to educate the aggressors as well as to protect the target. We think adults should know better. 😉

  17. Tracy Wilson-Burns

    August 23, 2011 at 5:07 PM

    A few years ago a co-worker who I barely knew forwarded a voice-mail message to me that she’d received at work. I was a co-leader of an inclusivity/diversity task force–and she didn’t know whom else to turn to for help. The message was an outside call placed by a woman. And it was a death threat against my co-worker, her husband, and their three children. Apparently, the caller didn’t like the fact our company employed a Muslim woman from India. I’ve witnessed other hostile acts at previous company’s over the years, but this one bothered me the most… I could tell how scared this young woman was, and the hatefulness of the phone call was something I never could have imagined before I heard it. I urged my co-worker to forward the message to a high-level manager I knew would help her–and went with her to talk to him. The police were notified, but I don’t know what further action was taken.

    The topic makes me really appreciate all the wonderful people I’ve worked with over the years–at HP and Agilent especially. The overall work culture at these companies has been one of trust and respect–with people really making a sincere effort to appreciate each other and engage in thoughtful communication. There are exceptions, like the instance above, but I haven’t experienced many of them.

    And as a topic for writing–you’ve reminded me of how evil people can be in “ordinary” situations–and I’ve needed this refresher to recharge some of my villains!

  18. Liz Fredericks

    August 23, 2011 at 5:47 PM

    Hi Tracy,

    You reminded me of something Hannah Arendt observed when she covered the trial of Adolph Eichman (sp?). She described the ‘banality of evil’. We expect evil to be obvious, but it’s most frightening in its innocuous, mundane, pervasiveness. I’m so sorry about what your colleague experienced, but glad there are workplaces such as yours.

  19. Marsha R. West

    August 23, 2011 at 6:11 PM

    Wow, Liz. You’ve hit an emotional chord with lots of us. As I read your list, I could literally feel my blood pressure rise. I’m a retired elementary principal. Emphasis on “retired.” As a principal, you’d think I’d have had a position of authority and be the suspect in a bullying situation. Nope, I’ve been bullied more times than I can tell you by staff members (and oh, those passive-aggressive types are tough to deal with) and parents, too. Seldom from kids, even when I taught in a high school.

    Kids bully other kids because they learn it in their homes and from TV when adults laugh at stuff like you saw in The Office. As everyone else has said, I look forward to the second part on this topic and it’s certainly given me food for thought where my wip is concerned. Thanks for raising such an important issue. Marsha

    • Liz Fredericks

      August 23, 2011 at 8:57 PM

      Hi Marsha,

      Thanks so much for commenting and raising the point about subordinates bullying their supervisors. This is pretty common. It’s especially a challenge when there are big age differences in a workplace. I get many stories from younger supervisors being bullied by workers with more seniority – and the reverse is true as well. I’m looking forward to posting on strategies in a couple of weeks and hope to hear ideas from everyone on what’s worked for them.


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