We were on vacation. The sun was shining, the steel drums were playing a cheery tune and my skin was glowing from a day in the sun. It seemed perfect.
And it almost was.
As Warren and I were about to reboard our cruise ship, we joined the queue of a few dozen people who were chatting amicably, as people on vacation do.
Then the yelling started.
A large man, on vacation with a woman I assumed was his wife, started yelling at her. I don’t mean just loudly—I mean railing on her in a very demeaning way. “You are so stupid. You always do this. Can’t you do anything right?”
I stopped and turned to see what on earth could be causing this unbelievable tirade. I was shocked to see that it was real (not actors looking to cause a crowd) but a real man and woman and this was a real situation.
I was stunned and completely unsure of what to do. Even though I teach people how to deal with bullies, and I know what to do in theory, I was stuck between do I, or don’t I? The right answer isn’t always clear in the moment.
Have you ever been in a situation in which you didn’t know what to do in the moment? At 3 a.m. lying in bed the answers always seem to be obvious, but in the heat of the moment, sometimes the brain just does not operate.
Impulsively, I took a step back. Warren put a hand on my arm to say, “hold on a minute here.” He was right. I didn’t know the people or the situation. I know that domestic disputes are never good, but even the police are very cautious when they are called in to deal with one. This guy was very upset, and he was much bigger than I was. And, I was in a foreign country.
The woman looked up and caught my eye, and her eyes pleaded with me not to interfere. She was so embarrassed. I’m sure she wanted the earth to swallow her whole in that moment. Perhaps if I interfered, the consequences would be much worse for her later on. Maybe just letting him yell would take care of the situation for her; maybe making an issue would make it much worse for her.
I just felt paralyzed.
Maybe I imagined her telling me to walk away. Maybe it was what my brain wanted to think she said.
I walked away.
I kept looking back though, and he did stop yelling. However, the light banter between passengers was gone, and the mood became sombre.
In the workplace I would have handled that situation completely differently.
– I would have documented the situation (and offered it to the person who was being yelled at).
– I would have offered support to the person being yelled at/bullied after the fact (Do you want to talk about it? Can I offer you any support? Has this happened before?)
– I would have said, “Can I help with something here?”
– I would have interfered in some manner.
– I would not have looked the other way and pretended it didn’t happen.
– I might have discussed it with my supervisor, my union rep or my human resources department (depending on the situation).
– I would have made direct eye contact with the person yelling (as if to say “I am witnessing this”).
I’m pretty sure that, having done something, I would be feeling better than I do right now.
But work is different than personal life, and at work I would have known the people. Here I didn’t know what I was potentially walking into. I didn’t know if I would be safe, or what consequences my interference might have for the victim.
I know I’m not the only one who has witnessed this type of situation. I do know that there was no right answer for me about what to do and what not to do.
What would you have done?