Mean, Rude, Bully

Photo by Miss Blackflag via Flickr

A while ago, I came across a really great article via A Mighty Girl that was originally published on the Huffington Post.

Rude vs. Mean vs. Bullying – Defining the Differences by Signe Whitson is an excellent article that draws attention to the distinction between these three types of behavior.

Why is the distinction important? Because not all behavior that is unpleasant is actually bullying. Many people are quick to use “bullying” as a way to define all innapropriate behavior but it is actually it’s own special breed of nastiness. It is more than rudeness. It is more than being mean. Take a look at these examples from the article:

Rude = Inadvertently saying or doing something that hurts someone else.

What it can look like: Burping in someone’s face, cutting in line, snatching a pen or marker from someone’s hand, laughing at someone who just made a mistake, bragging at their own success.

What makes it ‘rude’: Rude behavior is typically spontantious, based on thoughtlessness or poor manners and not intended to hurt others.


Mean = Purposefully saying or doing something to hurt someone once (or maybe twice).

What it can look like: Words said in anger or in the hopes of making themselves feel superior next to another person (“You’re so fat/ugly/gay”).

What makes it ‘mean’: Intention. Mean behavior is designed to cause hurt to the person it is directed at.


Bullying = Intentionally aggressive behavior, repeated over time, that involves an imbalance of power.

Consider this from the article:

Experts agree that bullying entails three key elements: an intent to harm, a power imbalance and repeated acts or threats of aggressive behavior. Kids who bully say or do something intentionally hurtful to others and they keep doing it, with no sense of regret or remorse — even when targets of bullying show or express their hurt or tell the aggressors to stop.

Bullying may be physical, verbal, relational or carried out via technology:

Physical aggression was once the gold standard of bullying– the “sticks and stones” that made adults in charge stand up and take notice. This kind of bullying includes hitting, punching, kicking, spitting, tripping, hair pulling, slamming a child into a locker and a range of other behaviors that involve physical aggression.

Verbal aggression is what our parents used to advise us to “just ignore.” We now know that despite the old adage, words and threats can, indeed, hurt and can even cause profound, lasting harm.

Relational aggression is a form of bullying in which kids use their friendship–or the threat of taking their friendship away–to hurt someone. Social exclusion, shunning, hazing, and rumor spreading are all forms of this pervasive type of bullying that can be especially beguiling and crushing to kids.

Cyberbullying is a specific form of bullying that involves technology. According to Hinduja and Patchin of the Cyberbullying Research Center, it is the “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.” Notably, the likelihood of repeated harm is especially high with cyberbullying because electronic messages can be accessed by multiple parties, resulting in repeated exposure and repeated harm.


So why do we need to define and differentiate?

Well, the more obvious might be to stop everything being lumped into the bullying category and thus diluting the impact of this word and increasing the eye-rolling when this word is (over)used.

The less obvious and more important would be that kids, parents, and teachers need to be mindful of the difference so that they are able to spot the difference between a flippant encounter and another attack against a victim of repetitive bullying.

Kids need to know that all of these behaviors are inappropriate but there are some that are worse than others and should not be brushed off as “kids being kids”. Ever.

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