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It isn’t uncommon to see friends in a tight-knit circle poke fun at each other’s expense. After all, these are our confidantes who, after our family, perhaps know us best. But, sometimes, we’re all guilty of pushing things too far, wherein someone from the group is made the target of everyone’s wrath, the butt of everyone’s jokes, and the piñata everyone is swinging at, all at the same time. And while every dog has his/her/their day, certain groups tend to keep one person around just to make them the common punching bag of the circle.
A 2006 study on group dynamics and bullying by Gianluca Gini suggests that often these group dynamics build up during pre-adolescent years in schools and colleges wherein they behave as social contagions, which means that we find people who align with us and then the emotions, behaviours, and conditioning within that group is more or less on the same plane. However, once the dynamics are set, one or two people in the group end up taking more control than others. This often gets amplified by the time we reach our 20s and 30s.According to Aryanne Oade, author of the book Bullying in Teams: How to Survive It and Thrive, a team/group bully wants to achieve two aims simultaneously: the first is to put the target of the joke on the backfoot, and the second is to ensure that the group dynamic shifts in their favour, so that everyone defers to them. So, when a bully targets an individual and has ensured that the group dynamic is in their favour, others will be motivated to adapt their behaviour and will join in berating the target instead of helping them. People do this either to fit in or to be liked and, as a result, end up targeting the same person other group members are targeting as part of this conditioning.
We asked people who self-identify as group punching bags about how they feel when their friends gang up on them – jokingly or otherwise. All of them decided to use their first name or a pseudonym to avoid further bullying from their friends should they see their inputs here.
I have five really close friends; two of them have known me since I was 23. As we grew up, we managed to get better at life. However, of the two, one has treated me the same way they did 10 years ago, which is to say like a child. If there are times when I struggle to make decisions, I am spoken down to and almost yelled at for not having my shit together at all times. As we were a very close-knit group, this dynamic cascaded into my relationship with the others. Whenever I tried to talk back, I was considered a snob. I tolerated them putting me down until recently, when I put my foot down, and said fuck it. The group has since split up and we don’t hang out together anymore. Teasing is a common factor among friends but bullying and not considering how a person feels, and just punching down on them is not okay.
Bee, 33, Language Trainer
I have about seven inner circle friends and 15 including the outer circle. Being the funny and the clumsy one means you give the group a lot of fodder for jokes. They would tell new people we met (like potential love interests) that I'm a dimwit and not street-smart about things. They would also negatively reinforce that I will lose something or miss a flight or a train on a solo trip, since I need someone to take care of me all the time.
Nina, 35, Travel Writer
I mostly tolerate it because overall they are good friends and we take care of each other. I fight back once in a while, but usually let it go because I’m not confrontational and try looking at the bigger picture. Whenever I have fought back, all I’ve got as a response is, “It’s a joke and you give us so many reasons to make fun of you!” While certain aspects of their bullying are troublesome, I feel that’s 10 percent of the reality. The other 90 percent is that they will be there for me when I need them. Friendly bullying is a part of most groups’ dynamics, but it’s very important that it be vocalised if it is affecting your confidence. My friends tiptoe around making fun of me now. I hear things like, “Oh she’ll feel bad if we say that” or “we must watch ourselves,” which are forms of bullying, too.
Growing up I never had a friend circle, I just existed around everyone trying to appease them somehow. It only got worse as I grew older because I always found myself as the odd one out. I finally have a group with four people now, and I feel I end up being the punching bag because of how I’ve conditioned myself to put others first. So, while I don’t mind listening to their problems, they hate it when I try to share something, going as far as calling me dramatic (if I talk about queer rights or dating guys). They will go as far as to tell me that I don’t have a future in India as a queer individual and how I can’t leave my parents and hurt them. I’ve seen the worst of bullying because of my queerness and sadly ended up in Haryana for my studies, which is a rather homophobic state. While these four friends don’t “bully” me particularly, I feel unheard. I have a few queer friends, but they’re all online. At the end of the day, I'm alone with my straight friend circle, happy but with a void in my heart.
Kay, 19, Student
My friend circle varies between five and 10 people at any given time. I never saw my friends making fun of me as bullying because they don’t usually gang up on me at the same time. If it ever gets out of line, I let them know about it. I think by being the way I am, I have encouraged people to make me the butt of jokes because I feel I can take it. There are some others in the group who cannot, so if I absorb all the jokes, they don’t end up fighting with each other.
Gaurav, 28, Shipbroker
My current circle is only three people because I am trying to stay away from assholes. Earlier I used to hang out with a gang at my work that exhibited the same old “boys in a locker room” mentality, where they need to belittle someone to get their jokes out. If you’re chubby, thin, bespectacled, queer, dark, short, or bald – you’re made fun of. But standing up to the group bullies is a bad strategy because that just means that they have provoked a reaction. I used to hang out with them because they were work friends and where else would I fucking go? I have been on the attacking side too when someone else was being picked on for saying something stupid. But if you don’t draw a line, they have free reign. Most of us try to learn how to deal with it as we grow up, but I feel by then it’s too late. But then that bullshit argument that you’re unworthy or you suck has already made its place in your brain.
Raunak, 35, Software Professional
I’m surrounded by people who cannot make any decisions – be it about what restaurant to go to, what to order or where to hang out. So by being the loudest and the most assertive, I can get my way. Also, I’m the one driving them there, so I have some authority. In my group which mostly comprises women, I tend to bully everyone to the same degree. But to keep my conscience clear, I immediately apologise if I go too far. On the flipside, there are friend groups where I’m the punching bag. There are people there who are far more assertive and dominant and, at times, I’m the only target. I have made my peace with the fact that this is bound to happen in groups. Their jokes about me mostly have to do with my job, my physique, or where I come from. But it’s never gone too far.
Dattaraj, 29, Media Professional
Therapist and researcher Sadaf Vidha posits that the groups that we are a part of often consist of people who are low on self-esteem and boisterous ones. They stay in those roles despite the jokes because that’s what they have known at home, and that hurts both the bullied and the bully. “Both stay stunted, neither of them grow in these roles,” she said. “But if they are vulnerable, they have gone away from the frozen roles that they have known all their lives to find a place where they can grow as friends and not reverse these entrenched roles.”Follow Navin Noronha on Instagram and Twitter.