“Don’t worry, hon,” said Theresa’s husband, Guy, when she failed to extinguish all her birthday candles in one breath. “A woman your age has to be in shape to make wishes come true. You just don’t have the lung capacity.” Guy chortled. Theresa’s face turned scarlet. The rest of us chuckled nervously. We were used to Guy, to the jocular way he planted and twisted stilettos between his wife’s ribs. Like most of Theresa’s friends, I’d always found him just charming enough to be tolerable. But as I watched him serve Theresa’s cake, something dawned on me: Guy was a mean person. He’d intentionally humiliated his wife, and he did such things often. It was like that moment in a horror movie when you understand that the rogue car, rather than simply straying off course, is actively pursuing children and puppies.
I recall an urge to kick Guy in the throat, which I controlled by reminding myself that it was both illegal and difficult to pull off in heels. I was studying karate at the time, and though it didn’t occur to me then, I would eventually realize that the basic principles taught at my dojo could be used to fight evil not just in action but in conversation as well. I think of it as martial arts of the mind, and if you’re subject to subtle stabs, deliberate snubs, or cutting remarks, you might find these techniques an effective defense against the Guys of your world.
Principle 1: Find Your Fighting Stance
Every form of martial arts requires a fighting stance that’s fluid, flexible, and centered. Standing this way makes you much less likely to lose your balance, and if someone jumps you, you can quickly duck or dodge in any direction without falling.
Physical fighting stances involve balance, alignment, weight distribution, and posture. A psychological fighting stance is all about emotional balance: self-acceptance, abiding by your own moral code (something you’re probably doing anyway), forgiving yourself for failing to reach perfection (this is rarer), and, finally, offering yourself as much compassion as you’d give a beloved friend (I suspect some of us need work in this department). Simply put, you must never be mean to yourself.
This works because cruelty, to be effective, has to land on a welcoming spot in the victim’s belief system. Guy mocked Theresa’s age and lack of physical fitness because he knew she hated those things about herself. If she hadn’t already believed his insults, they would have left her feeling puzzled but not devastated—the way I was when I learned that calling someone a “turtle’s egg” is a horrific insult in China. She would have seen Guy as the pathetic head case he was. And that may have led her to our second principle.
Principle 2: Practice the Art of Invisibility
I once purchased a book that promised to teach the ninja’s fabled “art of invisibility.” I was crestfallen to read that the first step in a technique called vanishing was “Wait until your opponent is asleep.” The whole book was like that: Get your enemy drunk, throw dust in his eyes, thump him on the head with a wok, then tiptoe away, forever. Well, I could’ve told you that.
Nevertheless, I recommend these ninja techniques for dealing with mean people. Get away from them, full stop. Sound extreme? It’s not. Cruelty, whether physical or emotional, isn’t normal. It may signal what psychologists call the dark triad of psychopathic, narcissistic, and Machiavellian personality disorders. One out of about every 25 individuals has an antisocial personality disorder. Their prognosis for recovery is zero, their potential for hurting you about 100 percent. So don’t assume that a vicious person just had a difficult childhood or a terrible day; most people with awful childhoods end up being empathetic, and most people, even on their worst days, don’t seek satisfaction by inflicting pain. When you witness evil, if only the tawdry evil of a conversational stiletto twist, use your ninjutsu. Wait for a distraction, then disappear.
“But,” you may be thinking, “what if you’re stuck with a mean family member, co-worker, or neighbor? What’s poor Theresa supposed to do?” Well, Grasshopper, that’s when the martial arts of the mind really come in handy.
Principle 3: Master Defensive Techniques
All martial arts teach strategies to deflect different attacks. For instance, I was taught to defend against a lapel grab with a punching combination called Crouching Falcon, follow that with a multiple-kick series known as Returning Viper, and finish with the charmingly titled technique Die Forever. (I prefer my own techniques, such as Silent Sea Slug, which entails lying down and hoping things improve, or Disgruntled Panda, which is mostly curling up and refusing to mate.)
I also learned this closely guarded martial arts secret: Although there are countless techniques, most fighters need only a few. For instance, judo star Ronda Rousey has clobbered numberless opponents using the Arm Bar technique. Her opponents know she’s going to do it, but that doesn’t keep her from snapping their elbows like dry spaghetti. Each good technique goes a long, long way. The following are a few that I highly recommend, in order of degree of difficulty.
Yellow Belt Technique: Trumpet Melodiously
I’m a lifelong fan of “Japlish,” English prose translated from the Japanese by someone whose sole qualification is owning a Japanese-to-English dictionary. One classic Japlish instruction, which I picked up from a car rental company, advised: “When passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage then tootle him with vigor.”
I borrowed the phrase “trumpet him melodiously” for your first anti-meanness technique. It’s meant to nip hurtful behavior in the bud. Use it when someone—say a small child or an engineer—makes a remark that may or may not be intentionally cruel: “You smell like medicine,” “I can see through your pants,” “Why don’t you have a neck?”… You can trumpet him melodiously by saying, “Hey, dude, that’s kind of mean. Back off, okay?” If the behavior continues, tootle him with vigor by saying, “I’m serious. You’re out of line. Stop it.”
Practice these lines until you’re saying them in your sleep, with clear delivery, calm energy. Then, when you use them in real life, a normal person will react by immediately ceasing all hurtful behavior, and even mean people will be taken aback by your directness. They may even begin to behave themselves. Mission accomplished.
Brown Belt Technique: Zig-Zig
As a martial artist, you’ll need to get used to doing the opposite of whatever your enemies expect. For example, if someone were to push you backward, you might push back for a few seconds, then abruptly reverse, and pull your assailant in the direction he’s pushing. He’d be toppled by his own momentum.
This is zig-zigging. It works beautifully on mean people. They expect a fight-or-flight reaction from their victims—either angry pushback or slinking away. The one thing they don’t anticipate is relaxed discernment. Scuttle their plans by zigging instead of zagging, cheerfully accepting any accurate statement they might make while ignoring their malicious energy.
You can observe this technique in the movie Spanglish, when a young wife, played by Téa Leoni, lashes out at her mother, “You were an alcoholic and wildly promiscuous woman during my formative years, so I’m in this fix because of you!” As the mother, Cloris Leachman nods and says pleasantly, “You have a solid point, dear. But right now the lessons of my life are coming in handy for you.” This response stops the daughter cold, partly because it’s true and partly because it contains not a whiff of pushback. The mother zigs when the daughter expects her to zag. The result is peace.
Black Belt Anti-Meanness Technique: Wicked-Kind Parent
If you keep a balanced stance and surround yourself with normal people, you’ll eventually master the black belt skill I’ve named Wicked-Kind Parent. Mean people are adept at adopting the tone of a critical parent, making others unconsciously regress into weak, worried children. To use this defense, refuse to be infantilized. Instead, use the only thing that trumps the emotional power of a bad parent: the emotional power of a good one. This is what happened at Theresa’s birthday party. As Guy served cake and cruelty, Theresa’s older sister Wendy spoke up.
“Now, Guy,” she said, in precisely the tone Supernanny uses with kids on TV, “that kind of petty meanness doesn’t become you. Show us all you can do better.” Guy tried to laugh, but a glance around the room silenced him. Wendy had called on her good-parent energy to tap a great resource: normal people. Kind people. Outplayed and outnumbered, Guy slunk away, leaving Theresa to enjoy her birthday. This is virtually always the outcome when a mental martial artist encounters a Mean Guy. If you choose the way of the warrior, it will happen for you.
Principle 4: Walk the Way of the Warrior
Being a martial artist is a way of life. You can’t use your skills in an emergency unless you practice them every day. And such daily practice may lead to unexpected adventures. You’ll no longer watch helplessly as some Mean Guy emotionally abuses his wife—even if you happen to be the wife in question. Where your prewarrior self would’ve simply wilted, your warrior self will speak up or, if you’re the wife, walk away.
This may require drastic changes in your life. Are you ready for that? Well, you are if meanness has pushed you to the point of anger or despair. You are if you want to be the change you wish to see in the world. You can begin today. Adopt the stance of dauntless self-acceptance, avoid combat when possible, and practice your techniques until they become second nature. Though it might be helpful to remember that it really does help to wait until your opponent is asleep.