Is it OK to tell people to harden up?

Commentary on social media, news articles and forums is always problematic. You’ve got people who are invested in loving or hating the content delivery agent. Topics of all kinds get people more than a little hot under the collar. And of course you’ve got trolls, personal bias and the odd drunkard to contend with.

But increasingly, there is one phrase that is spilling into conversations online that is problematic. And it finds itself used in relation to work, productivity, and sexism, racism and homophobia related discourse. It also does a nasty cameo in mental health discussions.

It seems to carry the passive aggressive underskirts of ‘just sayin’. All while attempting to distance itself from a culture of social media overreaction.

And that phrase is ‘harden up’.

While the intentions may be to ward off any over-sensitivity or mob outrage, it sticks like a patch of prickles on an otherwise lush lawn. It’s problematic, dangerous and dismissive.

Here’s why we should consider leaving ‘harden up’ right out of our online conversations

Context and the problem with privilege and experience

There are a couple of topics on high rotation in Australian media and social media that illicit the ‘harden up’ response. They are in relation to blackface, gender inequality and sexuality via the Safe Schools discussions.

Two blue medical goved hands hold the thumbs up sign to indicate that you need to harden upThese politicised and inflammatory subjects invariably end with a ‘harden up’ from someone. But why should people who represent these communities and are members of them need to grow a thicker skin?

Telling a section of the population to get over their own identity and forget every prejudice they’ve ever encountered is shameful. Yet this is exactly what the ‘harden up’ response equates to in these sorts of situations.

As writer Jennifer Neal so eloquently put in her essay on why blackface is offensive,

“You do not have the right to set limitations on what is offensive, when it is your words, actions and attitudes that are offending. When you create a racist catalyst, but you also attempt to control the response you only further insult the people you offended by presuming to tell them how to think, act and feel.”  

But Jennifer’s words do not only apply to racism. They apply to our right as an individual to speak out against direct and in-direct prejudice. What right do we have to accidentally or intentionally deny the existence of someone else’s experiences? By assuming our own experience is the correct response, we further diminish a person’s ability to speak up for themselves.

Isn’t it hard enough to stand up for yourself without making it a case for further derision?

The ramifications for wider society through cultural silence

Workplace bullying in Australia is the highest of all developed countries. There are an estimated 17% of suicides in this country that are workplace related. Australia, we have an issue with our cultural approach to reasonable conduct when dealing with others at work.

So much so, the Australian Fair Work Commission extended their reach in 2015. They now examine individual cases through to enforcing cultural change within a workplace. Even if the focus is on two individuals, FWA can activate a plan for the entire workplace.

Yet the cone of silence continues. The bullying statistics collected signify a group of people bullied for 12 months or more. This is a long time to dread going to work.

And what of the impact of increased job insecurity? How many Australians are afraid of speaking out for fear of losing their job?

That you should cope with work demands is one thing. That you should also cope with the office bully is another level of hardship entirely. And it’s another underhanded message of ‘harden up’.

But at what cost?

Tough to the point of suicide

The suicide of young apprentice Alec Meilke, who was tormented, threatened with rape and burned regularly at his workplace garnered headlines. Meilke’s case found those headlines from his death in 2009 through to the end of an inquest in 2015.

The inquest found “no finding on jurisdictional grounds”. It also found that the bullying was a contributing factor to Alex’s depression.

Can anyone blame him for being depressed? Even if he was organically and clinically depressed through pre-existing issues, it would take an extremely tough person to survive in his workplace. How tough do you have to be to face off with threats of being raped with a metal object if you don’t get your work right?

He may have moved to a different place and not had to face the brutality anymore. But what impact would that have had on his ability to trust a future employer?

Suicide among young construction workers, a culture often associated with tough, macho self-image, sees twice the suicide rate of the same age bracket. Every second day in Australia, a tradie ends his own life. It’s such a problem, an independent suicide prevention charity, Mates in Construction, was set up in 2007 to deal with the issue. National Chief Executive, Jorgen Gullestrup spoke to Sydney Morning Herald about the issue and explained:

“In the construction industry we have a male culture on steroids. Suicide is so prevalent and it is such a tragedy that we try to keep it secret”

He also cited job insecurity, relationship breakdown, excess drugs and alcohol usage, long commutes and the physical nature of the work as part of a ‘perfect storm’.

The silence is generally what kills men and the culture of male stoicism contributes. Being able to soften the f*ck up is a far better message than hardening up, surely?

Reducing stress to a personal failing

It’s not to say that every situation we come across online is life and death. But there is a far better way to view people asking for help than to tell them to ‘harden up’.

None of us really know what is going on in someone else’s life at a given point in time.

Perhaps a particular problem is actually the summit of a very tall mountain of accumulated issues and incidents. We just don’t know what the last straw may be.

We have a mental health issue in this country. We have increased rates of anxiety and depression. Burn out is becoming an increasingly big problem. So too is isolation and increased pressures.

Take the case of George Bender. He was a farmer who fought the coal seam gas lobby and energy companies for 10 years. They invaded his personal space and called on him on a regular basis to try and get him to sell his land. He didn’t want to. Yet they were legally able to harass him.

George was the quintessential Aussie battler. And he wasn’t quiet about his fight with the gas companies or how morally wrong he thought his situation to be. He was also working in one of the toughest industries in this country.

Working with nature to grow animals and crops is no small undertaking. Bank pressure, the weather, pests and disease, the market, supermarket pricing and many other pressures all want a slice of the pie. George looked tough because he was tough.

The tragedy of George Bender is he asked for help. He rose his hand countless times. He spoke about the injustice. He followed all the right channels. But nobody was particularly interested in listening.

But in the end, he wasn’t tough enough to prolong the fight any longer.

No Australian worth their salt would be able to accuse a person like George Bender of weakness. Yet continued stress clearly had a profound effect on his thinking. Even if he chose suicide as a statement to highlight his cause, because his heart was broken, or the situation genuinely got too much, it doesn’t matter.

What matters is there is a limit to what one person can go through before cracks start to appear. And those cracks may very well see a dam break of epic proportions.

In short, by telling someone to harden up, you minimise their situation and reduce the impact of their situation. You diminish their ability to ask for help at critical points by ignoring their pleas when they still have the strength to make them.

It’s incredibly naive to think that a person can’t be bruised, knocked and pressured to the point where they might ask for help.

It’s incredibly stupid to reduce it to their personal problem alone. If you haven’t at least attempted to understand the mitigating circumstances surrounding their decision to speak up, what right do you have to dismiss their concerns?

Harden up is such an ugly idea

Being hard and without feeling or compassion for others isn’t a show of strength. It’s usually a determining factor of being a sociopath. Yet here we are in a society that degrades vulnerability and authenticity and praises channelling our unfeeling, uncaring and cynical elements.

As author and researcher Brene Brown says “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

So why reduce our abilities in areas vital to personal and professional success by concreting over them with stoicism?

When we lock onto a set position and hard-thinking approach, we fail ourselves through tunnel vision. But our desire to have things go according to plan – our plan- can be detrimental to other people’s mental health and courage.

Robbing others of the ability to speak up and voice their concerns kills off the free exchange of ideas needed to prevent the blindness inherent with one-eyed thinking. We also rob ourselves of a reasonable standard of self-care by setting a completely unobtainable standard.

Shutting down conversations, queries and concerns isn’t a sign of strength. It’s probably a better indicator that you fear your own values being challenged. And adhering to a school of thought that punishes people for seeking help and puts them in the faulty pile based on completely subjective notions of what people should and shouldn’t be able to cope with is egotistical and potentially dangerous.

Bruce Lee, arguably one of the most well known martial artists of all time, sums it up best:

“Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” 

Any fool can close their mind to another person’s pain. It takes true strength of character to try and understand where it comes from. Even if you don’t agree with their reasons or the ways they display it, it doesn’t give you the right to tell them they have failed for trying to own it.

Don’t you agree?

Let’s move away from harden up to a far more inclusive and compassionate society via BETTER WORKPLACE CULTURE and COMMUNICATION. ASK ME HOW.  



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