What to do when you hear this: “You don’t drink alcohol? You’re a bad guy.”
I am not particularly sensitive in certain situations, such as the other day when the person whose son I taught for free for eight months chastised me when I couldn’t continue volunteering anymore, but I’ve also learned that you can express your boundaries without violating anyone else. As I’ve mentioned, being assertive means that I don’t let other people hurt me, but at the same time, I do not need to hurt anyone else. Today, another opportunity arose in my school for me to assert a boundary of mine, and I did so without putting anyone else down.
Two years ago, one of my elementary school students, a fifth grader, punched me during class. Of course, being over twice his size, his punch didn’t hurt me much and I could have easily defended myself if he were to attack me further. However, that’s beside the point. The bigger issue is that this student of mine committed an act of violence against me. After I reported it to the principal of the school, the next week, his mother came in, and we had a meeting with the homeroom teacher, the principal, the mother, and me, during which the mother tearfully apologized to me.
This student didn’t just decide to punch me the first day we had met. How did it get to the point where a student thought that assaulting his teacher would be acceptable?
The answer is simple: violence starts with words.
For months, his behavior had been escalating. It would start with comments, such as “teacher, you are bad.” After that, he started saying things like, “teacher, I hate you.” At the time, I figured since he was a child and he wasn’t really doing anything too bad, that I’d just ignore him and hoped that he’d just knock it off on his own.
That was my mistake.
After he realized that there were no consequences for his words, he started resorting to actions that violated my well-being. He would take my cell phone and dash off with it, or he would come into the teacher’s lounge and delete things on my computer as I was typing, and he spat ice cubes and sunflower seeds on me while we were waiting for the bus.
Still, I did nothing.
Finally, after months of escalating behavior, during class, he was unhappy with one of the games we played, so he walked up to me, pounded me in the arm, and then after class he threw his shoes at me.
I decided at that point that enough was enough. After he threw his shoes at me, I raised my voice at him, used *very* aggressive body language, and said to him in my broken-ass Korean, “Touch me again, I dare you.” At that point, he started to display submissive behavior, but it wasn’t over yet.
The following week was when I reported the incident to the principal, and the student wrote me an apology letter after the meeting we had.
At the time, I was pretty vexed that a student dared to hit me, and was mad at myself that I let him get away with his misbehavior for so long, but now, I realize that it was just an opportunity for learning.
I am extremely grateful for that student, because he taught me the importance of early prevention. He *learned* that I would let him do as he pleased, because that is what I taught him. He discovered that there would be no consequences for his actions. From this experience, I realized that people who violate me will continue to do so unless there was an intervention, and I vowed that the next time I felt someone’s behavior escalating, that I would intervene.
The only issue was, I didn’t know *how* to intervene early.
I’ve not kept it a secret that I am less than satisfied with my father’s parenting while growing up. Whereas someone with a better father than I had might have learned ways of standing up for themselves, mine not only neglected to teach me this skill, he went in the opposite direction and taught me that people can violate me verbally, physically, and emotionally whenever they please.
It never really occurred to me that saying no, establishing and enforcing healthy boundaries, and standing up for yourself were actual skills. The lack of these skills, combined with the low self-esteem I had during my adolescence, led to a very lonely and painful high school experience, which continues to affect the way I see myself to this day.
During my quest to learn these skills, I began to pursue various classes available online. Most notably, resources such as Chris Voss’s MasterClass on negotiation, the YouTube channel Charisma On Command, and Joe Navarro’s book on body language were immensely useful for my purposes.
One video in particular from Charisma on Command prepared me for the exact situation that I was confronted with today.
In the video, Charlie Houpert (the host of Charisma on Command) mentioned a story in which the boss of an organization used a profane insult against his employees. There was a new employee that day, and whereas the other employees just kind of accepted the boss’s verbal abuse, the new employee said to the boss in a calm manner and with open body language, “Sir, where I come from, that word is not considered acceptable and I don’t appreciate it being used on me. Please don’t call me that word again.” (This is not a verbatim quote).
As the other employees’ mouths gaped open in shock, the boss apologized and said, “I’m sorry, I won’t say that to you again,” and everyone proceeded to carry on with the meeting without further incident.
While saying this might sound deceptively simple, it simply never occurred to me that doing so was an option when I was younger, and this video was one of my first experiences explicitly seeing and being taught how to handle such situations.
On Wednesday afternoons, I come to my new high school to teach classes. Today, as soon as I arrived in the school, one of the staff members of the administration office greeted me and we chatted for a bit. At one point, he asked me if I like to drink soju, to which I responded that I don’t consume alcohol at all.
He seemed surprised by the fact that I don’t consume alcohol. While still within earshot, he closed the office door and I heard these words being spoken (in Korean): “David is a bad guy.”
I don’t know if this staff member realized I could hear him or not, and I had a short debate in my head about whether I should confront him about it or not. After about 5 seconds of internal debate, while keeping the Charisma on Command video in mind, I decided to take action, and knocked on the office door.
When I walked into the office, I asked the guy, “Do you like soju?” After a brief conversation, he then said again, “David is a bad guy.”
When he said that, I responded using open and firm body language and tone of voice, “It’s not okay to say that.” Of course, my emotions are kept under control — I said so coolly and calmly and did not intend to cause him harm in any way, and in fact had a smile on my face while doing so. After I said that, the other staff agreed and said, “Exactly, David you should scold him,” and he responded, “Okay, David is a good guy.”
After that, I thanked him and then went to get lunch, happy with how I handled the situation.
It’s not like my feelings were particularly hurt by what he said. I’ve heard much worse things said about me than what he said (with my own father’s insults being the most disgusting of them all), and if it were someone I weren’t going to see again, I really wouldn’t have cared at all. However, this is someone I’m going to see regularly for the rest of the year, and while this insult was mild and barely affected me, my concern was that it would escalate into something further. Bullying isn’t reserved only for the schoolyard — it happens in the adult world, too, but I sure as hell am not going to let that happen to me.
Imagine if I didn’t say anything.
Perhaps he would continue to repeat that line to me, or perhaps he would replace “bad person” next time with something more severe. Perhaps the next foreign teacher after me also doesn’t drink, but because I didn’t intervene, this gentleman will believe it is okay to belittle the next foreign teacher’s teetotalism as well. It is possible that the person who takes over my job after I finish my contract will be more sensitive than I am, and might feel extremely hurt by those words, or might even feel pressured to consume alcohol in order to try to win this fellow’s approval. Again, I have no ill will against this man, and I have no hard feelings, but at the same time, his words were, although not the worst I’ve ever heard, degrading toward me, and that’s where I draw the line.
As a lover of foreign languages, I experience great delight whenever I successfully communicate in a foreign language, no matter how poorly or heavily accented. Since I first started dabbling in social skills classes and books, I’ve realized that self-confidence and charisma are languages all on their own. The majority of human communication happens non-verbally and para-verbally. It doesn’t matter that my Korean is and always will be heavily accented — I let him know through my non-verbal and para-verbal communication that I will not accept his insults, and that this was a firm boundary of mine.
I am extremely grateful for all of the resources I’ve had at my disposal the past year or so, and I even sent Charlie Houpert an email thanking him for giving me what I called “a second chance at life” (and in fact he responded to me directly), and I am extremely grateful for every single opportunity I’ve had in the past couple of years to practice, including the times that I failed (in this case, the fifth grade student who punched me).
In fact, there is *still* room for me to improve.
Instead of saying, “It’s not okay to say that,” it would have been better for me to have said something like, “That upsets me to hear and I would prefer it if that not be said to me again.” The first one sounds like I’m trying to teach him, and might be perceived as sanctimonious in a culture that places great importance on age (the teacher who said that to me is older than I am), whereas the second one is purely my subjective feeling.
Charisma and confidence truly can be learned, and I am living testimony of that.