In a piece titled “Coping with Verbal Abuse” appearing recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Robert J. Sternberg offers advice for those who have experienced this form of mistreatment in the academic workplace.
Sternberg, a former university administrator and past president of the American Psychological Association and now a professor of human development at Cornell University, offers his short list of common types of verbal abuse in academe:
That abuse comes in many different forms: book reviews, referee reports on journal submissions, evaluations of grant proposals, questions and comments during presentations, offhand comments by less-than-collegial colleagues, and on and on.
Rather than simply giving it back and “telling off your abuser” (a potential “career-ender”), Sternberg recommends that one adopt approaches more likely to “pay off in the long run,” such as:
- “Ignore the abuse and, if possible, the abuser.”
- “It’s not always personal; sometimes it’s strictly business.”
- “View occasional abuse as just a cost of doing business.”
- “Consider verbal abuse as a sign you are being creative and doing your job right.”
- “Look in the mirror and ask yourself whether you are guilty of the same bad behavior.”
- “Use the incident as a teachable moment to show the abuser a better way to handle anger.”
Abuse vs. incivility
Last month I wrote a lengthy post about the importance of distinguishing between targeted, abusive, bullying behaviors and rude, abrasive incivility. Reading Sternberg’s advice column, I can only underscore that broader point. He appears to have placed incivility and genuine abuse into one big category and offered a list of suggestions for coping with them.
Those closely familiar with workplace bullying and mobbing know better. When I associate the term “verbal abuse” with workplace behaviors, it is usually in the context of targeted, career-threatening, health-impairing mistreatment.
I regard Sternberg’s article as containing a lot of sound advice for dealing with the seemingly inevitable incivilities that one encounters in academic life. There are a lot of socially inept, jerk-like, and mean spirited behaviors in higher education, and it behooves all of us to grow a thicker skin so we can better roll with the jabs. We also should encourage ourselves not to engage in the same.
But heaven help those who blithely confuse targeted abuse with bad manners, indelicate prose, or an irritating personality. By the time they realize what is happening, it can be too late to undo the damage inflicted upon them.
Workplace has just published an issue on “Academic Bullying and Mobbing.” You can access the issue here.
The Guardian newspaper has published a collection of articles on “Bullying in universities in focus.” You can access these pieces here.