Bullying Prevention Expert Stan Davis: Words Hurt

Bullying Prevention Expert Stan Davis: Words Hurt

Bullying prevention expert and author Stan Davis discusses how words can interfere with learning and safety.


When we hear the phrase “words hurt,” we usually think of the negative impact of name-calling and other verbal forms of mistreatment by peers. Name-calling about race, disability, sexual orientation, gender expression, appearance, or other characteristics can do harm even if the person calling the names intends to make a joke. Words can lead to someone’s feeling unwelcome. Words can create a hostile educational environment. Words can interfere with learning and safety.

Yet our words, as professionals who work with youth, can also hurt. Think about the noun bully. When we describe someone as a bully, we may do harm. We tell ourselves—and the person we are describing—that there is something wrong with who the person is, not just with what the person has done. We tell ourselves, the person we are describing, and the people that person has done mean things to that things will not change. When we describe someone as a bully, we tell ourselves that that person meant to do harm, even though we have no way of knowing what a person’s intentions are when he or she does something. These two messages—that people do not change and that people intend harm—are likely to lessen hope for those who have been bullied. These messages also make it less likely that the person we are talking about will accept the feedback we are giving about his or her behavior. Depending on what we have been told about “bullies,” we may also tell ourselves that the person we are describing as a “bully” has been bullied—that he or she is acting out a “cycle of bullying” or that this young person is pre-sociopathic, devoid of empathy. Yet all types of youth—and adults—do cruel things to others at times. Some of those people have had positive family upbringings and have the capacity for empathy. These people may be copying the behaviors they see in reality TV or political debates. They may be desperately trying to achieve social status by criticizing those who are further down the social ladder than they are. Some people who bully or mistreat others have a history of emotional trauma. Some people who bully or mistreat others have a lack of social skills or empathy. Using one word to describe all these groups of people stops us from finding ways to help each group—or each person—to change. How can we tell our students not to call names and then call some of them “bullies?” I have heard from many professionals who use this word that they are just using it as a shorthand or that they know that it’s the behavior that counts rather than who someone is or that they know people can change. Yet our language shapes our thinking whether we want it to or not. In a parallel way we have, for many good reasons, worked hard to move away from using nouns to describe people in other categories. We say “people with disabilities” instead of “cripples.” There are many other examples of necessary language shifts that show that a person is more than one of his or her characteristics. We can and should shift to “people who bully” to avoid the negative impact of the word bully or bullies.

In a parallel way, the early writings in bullying prevention used the terms “passive victim” and “provocative victim” to describe those who have been bullied. This language inevitably implies that people who have been bullied are flawed and are at least in part responsible for how others treated them. In our study and book the Youth Voice Project, Dr. Charisse Nixon and I found that when youth know that they are not responsible for others’ mean actions toward them, they are more likely to heal from what has been done to them. Even the noun victim by itself implies weakness and a fixed, unchanging status and leads us to think that the person will be bullied again. We have learned over and over in parallel abusive situations that healing and change are most likely when the person who committed the abuse takes full responsibility for his or her actions. Healing is also supported when those who are abused see that they are not to blame for the abusive actions that were directed toward them and that they can be treated differently in the future. We can and should shift our language to “youth who have been bullied by others.” Why should we use nouns to limit, describe, and categorize?

In perhaps a more fundamental way, I have learned to challenge our widespread use of the word bullying to describe hurtful or potentially hurtful behavior:

  • First, there are so many different definitions of this word that two people who use it are likely thinking about different meanings of the word.
  • Second, many of the definitions require a finding that the person intended to do harm. How can we make this judgment about someone else when we so rarely know the intentions behind our own everyday actions? When we think we can decide if someone intended to do harm, we are likely to base these judgments on unconscious biases about the person we are thinking of. In addition, there is no connection between a person’s intention and the potential impact of the behavior. A racial or homophobic slur that is truly intended to be humorous can still wound. Hitting someone “as a game” can do physical harm. And factoring in intention leaves a large loophole for justifying one’s hurtful behavior. People can state that they were only joking and thus claim that their behavior was not bullying.
  • Third, many of the definitions require a status or power differential between the people involved. Status differentials, both real and perceived, have been described in many different ways over the past 20 years. Based on these numerous definitions, it seems to me that we could almost always find a real or perceived status difference between two young people if we chose to. But more fundamentally, it is clear that mean actions directed at a friend of equal status can do real harm.
  • Fourth, many definitions include a requirement that harm has been done. How are we to know if someone has been harmed emotionally by another person’s actions? One person claims to be harmed, and the family of the person accused of harm asserts that the person who claims to have been harmed is faking to “get our child in trouble.”
  • Finally, when we describe a behavior as bullying it is almost inevitable that the person doing it is accused of being a bully and then fights back against that classification.

I have found that the word bullying often makes it more difficult for schools and families to work together to lessen harmful behavior because each family involved either claims or denies that an action was “bullying.”

What is a better alternative to the use of the word bullying? I have found that we do better if we define expectations and evaluate behavior based on two related questions: Is this action likely to do emotional or physical harm? and Is this action likely to interfere with safety or learning? If the answers to one or both of these questions is yes, we should do all we can to stop the action from happening. In the Youth Voice Project, we called behaviors likely to harm “peer mistreatment.” When we focus on reducing all behaviors likely to do physical or emotional harm and likely to interfere with safety or learning, we can be more effective than if we focus more narrowly on “bullying.”

With these issues in mind, then, and toward the end of avoiding name-calling and promoting hope and positive change, we recommend substituting these phrases for current usage:

  • Mistreatment
  • Person who mistreated
  • Those who mistreat persistently
  • Person who was mistreated *Person who watched the mistreatment without helping
  • Person who supported the one who was mistreated

For additional information on Research Press author Stan Davis, please visit his author page.