February 20, 2009 in Features

Carolyn Hax: One’s choice to give repentant bullies a chance

Washington Post
 

Hi Carolyn: I’ve seen this come up a few times: A person who was bullied as a kid is suddenly in contact with the former tormentor years later, after everyone has grown up, and often the former bully is pleasant and delighted to see the person. The advice usually is, “Be cordial and pleasant, because we’re all different now than when we were kids.” And that makes sense, but:

What is with these people? Do they just not remember being bullies? I get that people in their 30s can’t walk around feeling bad all the time for the behavior of their 12-year-old selves, but it seems like a big leap to go from that to assuming I don’t have any leftover bad feelings. My own tormentor friended me on a social networking site last week and then messaged me: “Wow, I haven’t seen you since junior high!” And I’m thinking “Yeah, there was a reason for that, remember?” – Anonymous

My sympathies lie with the bullied, for sure. However, you’re making a big leap of your own now: Who says the repentant bullies (RBs) are “assuming” anything? They may be fully aware they were jerks in general, jerks to you specifically, jerks with no right to expect that any of their former victims will race to forgive and forget.

So the question becomes, what should RBs do? Send a “Great to be in touch, and I’m sorry for 1987-1990” message? Some might find that refreshing, but others might be unmoved to outright annoyed; imagine your question rewritten as “What is WITH these people? Do they think a lame Facebook apology makes everything OK?” No RBs would want their apologies making things worse.

And that’s assuming RBs even know who harbors bad feelings. People can know they were schoolyard jerks, they can even know to whom, but not know who shrugged it off or took it hard. What you feel acutely, they might sense vaguely. It can be tough to find openings to revisit the past. Approaching you online may have been an attempt at that.

Again – I feel for the bullied, so if you’re loath to make your tormentors feel better, then that’s your prerogative.

However, please do consider that it would make you feel better to give these unwelcome ghosts a chance. “Yeah, there was a reason for that, remember?” is a perfectly valid message to send in response. Grown-ups will not only be eager to make things right, but also grateful you presented them with the chance.

E-mail Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her online at 9 a.m. Pacific time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.


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