Bullying and The Art of War

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I flew back from Miami to Budapest, where me and my girlfriend would be driving straight to Croatia for a week of sailing. We arrived at the dock and I was greeted by drunk Hungarian sailors.

Upper middle class type guys, business owners. Rowdy. Their one chance a year to blow off steam. Why did I agree to come on this trip? I felt like Ben Stiller in the Hungarian Nautical edition of the “Meet The Parents”. But this was called “Meet The Drunk Bully”. They were hooting and laughing. I laughed along at their bad jokes, smiling through clenched teeth.

The next day we landed on an island, and after breakfast all 20 people from the multiple ships jumped into 3 tour buses to shuttle us across the island to the castle.

I pulled my seat belt back, but it was jammed. I jerked it again, realizing it wasn’t jammed. It was the guy behind me holding it. I was in shock. This guy was at least 45. A grown man. Playing this childish game. And grinning like an idiot. He had grey hair and a grey beard and a shit-eating grin like a ferret.

I tried one more time. He did it again. I gave him the exasperated reaction he was looking for and he let out the laugh of domination. He had won this round, and I buckled my seat belt and stared straight ahead.

My face glazed over in stone. I could feel my girlfriend next to me, searching my face. Would I be able to stay composed? As I sat in silence, the 3 men in the row behind us were joking around with one of the guys 15 year old daughters, making crude jokes. It was a non-stop stream of hooting, hollering, teasing each other, and fits of laughter.

I tried to tune them out and look out the window at the beautiful coastline, when felt a tap on the shoulder. Feigning surprise, I turned around and said “What?”

Ferretface shrugged as if to say “It wasn’t me.” I turned to the front again, and sat in silence as they continued to crack jokes and cause a racket. Again me and my girlfriend rode in silence. 20 seconds later he tapped me again. I tried to play silly this time, turning around and smiling like I got the joke. He grinned. I turned back around, and after another tense 20 seconds I thought I could relax.

He did it again, but this time flicking my ear.

He had me. And he knew it. I was trapped here, physically caged in by my seat. And psychologically trapped by the fact that any reaction or retaliation would play directly into his game.

I accepted my fate of ignoring him for the rest of the bus trip. What else could I do?
Violent thoughts flooded my mind. Spit in his face? Try kiss him? Turn around to face him?
Turn the group against him.: “I have a question. Does anyone here actually like this guy?”

Searing condescension: ” I guess you grew up in a different time. I feel sorry for you that you didn’t get to fuck as many girls as me.”

Manic violence: I imagined taking a knife out and cutting his lips up into pieces and feeding them to him. Then I thought about reaching forward, gouging the eyes out of the driver so he would send the bus off the cliff, killing us all and ending this madness right now.

“Ugh…” my girlfriend said as we got off the bus. “That guy is such an asshole. With everyone. Even the way he speaks to the ship’s owner, he’s so dismissive and disrespectful.”
All 20 of us sat at a café in the sun. The energy of the group was flat. I realized, these people don’t particularly like each other. Their whole social dynamic is based off yelling and putting each other down.

As we sat there in silence, I turned over more revenge options in my mind. “I want to propose a toast… To the most annoying guy I even met. Who has a tiny dick, and…” No, no, no. That wouldn’t do. Descending to the level of petty insults, on his turf, in front of his friends.

I still wasn’t sure how this battle of the minds would be won.

That night we had dinner in our cabin, and he made sure to sit right next to my girlfriend and drunkenly sleazily touch her. I guess she allowed this to happen because she likes the attention, or as a subconscious way to make me jealous. To many men this would provoke a strong response, but I’ve trained my mind from years of open relationships to see this as something that gives me power. He has no chance with her, and watching his attempts to assert dominance were amusing. Even though it didn’t work, the message from him was still clear: “I’m flirting with and touching your girlfriend to get inside your head and fuck with you.”

We returned to the cabin and I was alone with her. It was our private space and the sex was amazing, catching up on a month apart from her soft skin, beautiful scent, seductive cock-lusting eyes. After her muffling multiple orgasms into the pillow, she passed out, but I couldn’t sleep. I kept turning this situation over in my mind, trying to process where I stood with Ferretface and decide how I should react. I was literally losing sleep over him already.

The next night I stood on the pier dancing to the music, her in her cat suit. For the first time in days I felt free. We started doing some yoga stretches.

Of course, all the men were drunk and bored and had to emerge from the boat, looking for stimulation. They cracked many immature jokes about her cat costume. “If I pull your tail, will you pull mine baby!”

“Hey, looks like we got a pussy cat on the ship!”

This was a constant dynamic of the trip. A group of grown, married men in their 40s, away from their wives from a week, and somehow stuck on a ship with a young attractive couple in their 20s. You bet they took every chance they could to make references to her and her sexuality. “I know cats don’t like water but wonder if this pussy cat likes to get wet!”
As we stood on the pier, one of the friendlier guys, Brian, was giving me stretching tips. Behind him the circle of drunk sailors stood chattering. Their social exchange followed this exact formula the entire time:

“Bla blah blah” one would say about something, which would gather murmurs from the group.
“Blah blah BLAH” another would say, excited, and the group would let out a chuckle.
“BLAH BLAH BLAH” the final guy would say, and the groups chuckle would explode into a roaring laughter.
Brian was down on all fours showing me a stretch, and Ferretface climbed on top of him, laughing like a jackass.

Brian didn’t hesitate to join in on his own humiliation, yelling ‘Yiiihhaaa, ride the pony!’ and spanking his own ass as Ferretface simulated riding him like a horse and fucking him doggystyle. I cringed.

This was the level of his submission to the groupthink. Brian had just accepted that to fit into this group, he had to pretend to think their humor was funny, and accept all the humiliation dished out onto him. There is no way I would tolerate that kind of behaviour from my friends, and they wouldn’t from me. Every social group is different, and I know it sounds so judgmental to dismiss other male bonding strategies as ‘stupid/meathead/loutish’…

But I would put forth that these kind of ‘hazing’ rituals DON’T actually form real bonds between men. They create a competitive tension throughout a social group where you constantly have to be ready for attack. They create an environment where your first reaction to someone else making a mistake is to ridicule them, glad that it’s not you receiving the humiliation for once.

In German this tendency is known as Schadenfreude. The sick pleasure in watching someone else suffer, mixed with the relief that it’s not happening to you.

If it was a Facebook friend, if block them. If it was a friend, I’d avoid them. If it was a housemate, I’d kick them out. If it was a client, I would refund them. If it was a girl, I’d dump her. If it was in a bar, I’d tell security. If it was a street confrontation, I’d walk away.
But what can you do when you’re trapped on a boat with them for 5 days?

Suddenly the grisly pirate punishment of “walking the plank” started to make crystal clear sense. If someone’s disturbing the peace on the boat… they gotta go. And the only way to ensure everyone else’s safety is to get them off the boat, even if that means into the water and certain death.

I’m writing part of this on my phone in the boat from my cabin, and even as I write this I’m playing out insane scenarios in my head. “What if I wait till we dock and we’re about to leave the port in our car, then punch him in the face? No wait, that won’t work, coz then his buddy still has to drive us 6 hours back to Budapest. Damn. If only we were driving back together. Yes! Then I could wait till everyone left the car-park and it was just us two. Then pick up a rock and smash it over his head. And as he lay on the ground coughing blood I could smash it on his ankle. A fitting punishment.

No wait, better to rat pack him. Tell Tony and Andrew to come out with me. That way would could hold him down and torture him. Nothing serious. Just pour some chili in his eye. And up his nose. And maybe sodomize him with a broom handle. Yes. I really thought that.
So back to the pier. There we were, me and Brian stretching the rest of them standing around drunkenly yelling. Brian laughing off his sexual humiliation after Ferretface mounted him.

My girlfriend translates their Hungarian for me “They can’t believe you’ve been with 120 women.”

“How do they know that?” I asked, confused, as they searched my face.

“I told them. Because they saw the way you do yoga and said you move like a woman, and you must be gay. I told them, I don’t think he’s gay, he’s been with over 120 women.”

Their laughter petered out, and their drunken smiles faded slightly.

“120? More like 1.2” Ferretface said sarcastically, grasping at straws.

He walked right up to me and said “Is there a disco in this town?” His tone was violent, like he would punch me if I didn’t give the right answer.

“I have no idea” I said, staring him right back in the eye. He took a step closer, right in my face, and spoke again.

“Let’s go find it then.” I’m guessing his plan was to try to find a nightclub and bully me into approaching women. The plan was insane because we were docked in a tiny island port with 2 pubs and less than 100 people living there.

I turned away from him, and said to the group. “Ok, lets go. Who’s buying me a drink?”

“Me!” he said sternly.

I started walking, and he walked a meter behind me, linking arms with my girlfriend and draping himself on her. Again, this tactic probably works on most men, but I am unique in that I know how to transmute these jealousy attempts into energy. Trying to compete with this old man for my girlfriend assumes that he is a threat. To me he is not. He has no chance, therefore he can try all he wants.

“Do you always ask people to buy you a drink?” he sneered, two steps behind me with his arm still linked with hers.

“You’re being very aggressive” I said coldly and matter-of-fact. It wasn’t a burn, a great comeback, a sting. It wasn’t a super calculated one-liner. It was a neutral response to de-escalate him, calling out the situation and choosing not to play into his frame. It didn’t feel cool or badass, or like I had the upper hand. I was absolutely on the defense. These are the moments when meditation and social freedom help you: not in exchanges from films where you have some clever retort that destroys your opponent. But the real, honest, vulnerable and awkward exchanges. Having to just blurt something back, then thinking of something much better you could have said later. The French have an expression for this, L’esprit de l’escalier. L’esprit de l’escalier or l’esprit d’escalier (“staircase wit”) is a French term used in English for the predicament of thinking of the perfect reply too late. It literally means that as you walk down the staircase you thought of a great reply.

He mumbled to her in Hungarian and walked off, and she translated: “He said he should let me walk with you, because it looks bad if he’s taking your women.”

It was at this point that I realized not a single word, gesture or action he’d directed towards me had been positive, or even neutral. Literally everything that came out of that guys face was a highly calculated attack designed to fuck with me mentally. Then again, I hadn’t seen him exchange any communication that wasn’t drunken laughter or bullying with anyone on the boat.

Me and my girl walked along the pier, he doubled back to walk with his friends who were stumbling slower, and by the time we got to the pub, they were so far behind that they accidentally stumbled into the other pub.

We walked past and saw them inside. My girl asked me if I wanted to go in.

“Why would I want to go hang out with him?” It was good for me not to hide it or pretend I was cool with hanging out with them to impress her. It would have been an even more intense burden if I had to also keep a mask on in front of her.

As we walked back I processed my emotional reaction to them. “It’s funny that I’m judging them for being so loud. I’ve been that drunk obnoxious asshole before.”

“Well, you know these guys just work hard all year, lots of responsibility, they just wanna blow off steam, laugh, get rowdy. That guy has never been told no by anyone. He spent his whole life growing up rich. Successful company. He’s not used to being told no.”

Again that night I lay awake fantasizing about all the things I could have said.
Dismissing him: “What’s your big problem? Didn’t get enough pussy as a kid?”

Patronizing: “You don’t have to try so hard man” I’d say, patting his shoulder. “Your friends like you even when you’re not an asshole.”

Baffled: “Do you have to act like this every time you meet someone new?”

I could try peacefully. Man to man. “Hey man. Why you gotta be such an asshole? Let’s have a truce. We’re all trying to enjoy this trip in peace.”

Or peace with a threat “It’s all fun and games man. But don’t push me. You don’t know what I might do.”

I even fantasized about creating some kind of violent backstory for myself to instill fear in their minds. Maybe I had been to jail. Maybe I stabbed someone. I had power. I was someone not to be trifled with.

Thought about pushing him in the water. Challenging him to a shot drinking contest then puking on him. Pouring soup on him. Awake every night staring at the ceiling and plotting revenge.

Sabotaging his boat.

Sending a bullet to his house in an envelope. Threatening to kill his family and kids.

I even imagined…what if I was physically stronger? What if it was the exact same situation, 15 drunk guys on a boat, one hot young girl, one boyfriend. What if the boyfriend was a big biker guy? Dangerous? Had been to prison? Covered in tattoos? Violent? It still wouldn’t really change anything. There was still 15 of them. And even if he asserted his dominance through punching one of them, the rest would retaliate, hold him back, break it up. Even if he won, he would still have to spend 5 days in that situation. On the water trying to enjoy a relaxed holiday with his woman, but having to be in full battle mode 24/7. And him reacting violently would prove that Ferretface won the battle of the mind, pushing him to the point where just a few well place words and gestures forced an over-reaction.

And then having to deal with my woman, knowing that I had ‘gone too far’ and disrupted our holiday out of pride.

So… this game would not be won by strength or violence, but by strategy. There’s a time and place for getting physical, and this isn’t it.

I was realizing that as soon as I accept his frame of us in a battle, I lose.

“Choose a battle ground that gives you an advantage. If you are fighting at a disadvantage, better to walk away and fight another day. Sometimes there’s honor in standing your ground, sometimes just stupidity.”
Sun Tzu – The Art of War

The above quote is paraphrased by me, but summed up the basic sentiment.

I gave myself a rousing speech in my head.

“Firstly, accept he is a successful bully right now. Use that word, just to remove ego from the equation. He is the bully. Which makes me the victim. The target. Trying to pretend it’s not happening when it absolutely is happening, is delusional and disadvantageous.

Secondly, accept this is a game. This is War. He is very strategically targeting me because he has the power.

What do I have control over the situation? Having exhausted every possible response (reasoning with him, violence, wit, dismissal, ignoring him), I accepted that the only way for me to win this battle is to not engage him. Every time we enter into an exchange he’s already won by having the superior home-ground advantage: his friends, his language, less to lose (he doesn’t have a girlfriend he has to stay calm in front of).

So now, Liam, you are playing a simple game: avoid him at all costs. For the next 48 hours your main focus is to ensure you don’t see him again. I can’t fight him, I can’t argue with him, I can’t humiliate him, I can’t try to overwhelm his social influence… but I can stay in my room.

Does that make me a pussy? Some would say so. They would say that I should ‘act like a man’ and ‘show no fear’ and ‘face him.’

But I would say it makes me cunning, intelligent, forward thinking, strategic. Sure, I could be a hero and face him. But for what gain? Do I feel powerful or good about myself? No. I have nothing to prove to him. Is my girlfriend impressed? No. All it does is cost me mental energy, for no gain.

I asked her later, “What is going on in your mind when he touches you?”

“Well he’s really nice to me. Just not to my lovers.”

“But if you think he’s such a jerk, why do you let him touch you, put his hands all over you?

“I thought it would be better to keep the peace…create a nice friendly atmosphere”

I took a breath and accepted… she will never understand warfare or male violence. I can try explain it to her, but she has never been in a fight. She doesn’t have the same hormones as me, the same genetic code that causes men to compete for dominance and react to threats in a uniquely male way. I’m probably scientifically wrong about this, but I’m sure many men reading can FEEL what I mean. She is not invested in protecting my pride of honor.

Another way to look at it is, he’s using his same manipulation skills to invade her physical space. But she is very good at asserting her boundaries… it’s all very complicated. I don’t really know what to think about that aspect.

The next night after dinner, we were cleaning the dishes.

“The captain told me they were doing nasty things with my bra” she told me.

I held my breath, maintaining my composure, and gently asked. “How do you feel about that?”

Inside I thought, what did you expect. You brought us here. You locked us here with these animals. You deserve it.

“He was just like this with my ex…” she told me later.

“How did your ex react?”

“He tolerated it for 2 days. And then finally told him to fuck off. Which shut him up for a day. But then the last 2 days of the trip he went right back to harassing him.”

It was somewhat comforting to know her boyfriend hadn’t been able to handle it either. Based on what she told me he sounds like a powerful guy, was CEO of a successful startup company, good at motivating people and being a leader. Even someone with those skills still battled in this situation.

Our boats dropped anchor outside an abandoned Yugoslavian submarine tunnel, and we went for a naked swim. It was really peaceful jumping in the salty water with the sun shining, Ferretface nowhere in sight.

After we came back on board to eat, his boat arrived next to ours.

“We’re invited to their boat to eat lunch” my girl said.

“I’m not hungry. And I don’t want to see that guy” I told my girl. It was scary admitting that I was going to hide in my room rather than face him, but I had to take my ego out of the equation and focus on the battle plan. I retreated to my cabin, pulled my phone out, and started furiously typing more of what would become this piece of writing.

One thought I kept having was “Why the fuck did my girlfriend bring me into this situation?”

There is some merit to that question, but from her point of view, we had a chance to go on a sailing trip that would have cost thousands of dollars for only $200.

But I also accepted: Blaming her and getting annoyed at her for the actions of another man is ME not taking responsibility. Not being able to fight my own battles. If I channel this hatred towards him as drama into our relationship, he is poisoning our relationship even after he leaves.

She later said “I specifically requested we not be put on a boat with that guy” showing that she was aware he would target me, but conscious of not making it easy for him.

This whole experience was the first time I had been in a hostile exchange like that for years, and it reminded me of highschool. Kids calling me names, yelling out at me as I walked home, snide sniggers about the way I walked or talked.

Finally our boat docked, and I retreated to the room again.

“Baby, what are you doing?” she asked me. “Come out and socialize!”
“These people aren’t my friends! Why the fuck should I socialize with them?!” I spat at her.

Her eyes softened. “Don’t worry. He’s gone. Just come say bye to everyone else.”

As I emerged I realized pretty much everyone else on the trip was friendly. Some were rude bumbling drunks, but none were malicious like him.

I called my friend who’d experienced similar stuff in the military, and he said “It’s good have to experiences where you are powerless, because it makes you appreciate being powerful.”

Overall I’m proud of how I handled it. But boy, what a psychological torture. No escape. I wonder how much longer it would have to go on before I would retaliate.

I also led me to explore conflict resolution strategies. One of my friends has insanely noisy neighbors above him that he can’t get evicted because they know the landlord. He had battled with them for years and they would still play loud music at 6am on a Sunday morning.

“My plan is to go and tell one of the huge black bouncers across the road I’ll pay him $100 to knock on their door and tell them he’s my new roommate. And that he hopes there won’t be any problems with noise.”

“Dangerous game to play man” I told him. “As soon as you enter that territory you are basically taking it to a violent place… With no knowledge of what they are capable of.”

“True. The guys been in jail. His mum was in jail. Drug charges.”

“So even if they’re not violent…they probably know someone who is.”

Live by the sword, die by the sword. Being able to resolve this without violent isn’t just honorable… it’s practical. What would I draw into my world by opening up that chapter?

My friends Serbian girlfriend told me another crazy story: “Kids at my school decided there was 3 levels of cool. There was the top class. They ruled the school. Then the level below them who were less cool but could get a pass and then the lowest level. They were bullied by everyone. And each one of them had to wear a colored wrist band to signify which level they were! These kids had basically invented a Nazi regime without having even studied that. It’s scary because it seems like it’s human nature.”

I tried the Yin-Yang quantum collapse technique. Putting myself in his shoes. I pictured myself growing up in communist Hungary, getting bullied at school, beat up by my older brother, having to be tough and constantly create a war around myself.

One main takeaway from this was I realized I am a violent person. I just am rarely in a situation where I have to use it.

I realized too that in this situation there was no honor in standing up to him. The purpose of my strategy had to be primarily centered around what would work, not what would make me feel tough or proud.

When I accepted that we were at war, it removed the emotion and became cold strategy: I couldn’t get off the boat. But I would avoid being in the same room as him. It became a game. Can I go the next 48 hours without giving him another chance to needle me.

This is how I’ve avoided street fights for the last 13 years. So many situations where if I was proud or had to have the last word, things would have escalated to physical violence.

It’s not even pride at “being the bigger man.” It’s about the bigger picture of what I get from it. I have the wisdom to realise that beating someone up on the street is a temporary win. Sure it might feel good or exciting. But what do I risk: permanent damage to myself or others.

A computer simulation of human aggression strategies showed the best approach to conflict is the “provokable nice guy.”

Nice guy- avoids conflict fully

Bad guy- engages in violence at every turn

Provokable nice guy – keeps peace until he has no option but to retaliate.

The bad guy “dies” or incurs too many battle wounds from constantly engaging everyone to a fight that his genes die out. The provokable nice guy doesn’t get into pointless battles, but can defend himself.

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