Tolerance is a good thing, right?

In many cases, yes. We all have our annoying quirks that we hope others will overlook for the sake of harmony. We have bad days that spawn bad behavior. We do and say things we wish we hadn’t, all the while hoping our friends and coworkers will disregard our shortcomings. Similarly, if we want to get along, we regularly need to put up with such things in others.

Talk about personally sensitive subjects like land-use, politics, religion, and changing weather patterns can be particularly challenging. It’s necessary to tolerate differences of opinion, even when the opinions of others don’t make sense to us. A wonderful thing about our country is that our constitution strongly supports the right for anyone to express their opinions in public. Opinions run the whole gamut –  one person’s wacky idea is another’s cherished belief.

Even when discussions become divisive, or devolve into gripe sessions, we can usually either change the subject or find an excuse to leave. Some work groups create guidelines about when and how certain subjects are discussed at work. Managers and others with higher-level positions need to be particularly careful not to impose their opinions on those lower in the work hierarchy. People we have power over may not feel they can change or leave the conversation.

The concept of tolerance changes when ideas move into action. There’s a big difference between listening to divisive opinions and tolerating bad behaviors, especially when the actions threaten the safety and well-being of others. Bullying is a common example: While we may choose not to argue with someone who speaks poorly about others in private, we must not stand by and watch, or look away, while someone harasses or intimidates another. When we see harassment and intimidation, tolerance is not the appropriate choice; we need to identify what’s going on and take steps to stop it.

Before intervening in a bullying situation, there are several important points to consider. First, we need to make sure direct interruption is safe for us and the person being bullied. It’s possible that we may become the new focus of the bully’s attention. Likewise, we don’t want to create a situation where the harassment of the target worsens once we leave.

Intervening can feel scary; interrupt in a way that feels safe to you. In situations where we can safely intervene, one effective strategy is to ignore the bully and engage the target in friendly conversation, as though they were a friend of ours. This breaks the isolation of the person who is the target and keeps the bully from portraying them as ‘the other”. It also avoids confronting the bully and becoming the new target.

It’s not surprising that we might tend to avoid “getting involved”. But choosing not to act is an action as well. There’s just no way around that – if we’re there, we’re already involved. Many studies over the last couple of decades have shown that the behavior of bystanders is an integral factor in how both verbal and physical attacks play out. Allowing bad behavior to continue in the name of tolerance just encourages more of that harmful conduct.

So, we can look at the possible consequences of a given comment or behavior and ask ourselves: Does tolerating this increase or decrease harmony in the long-term? Listening to a friend vent about a recent governmental action can increase connection with them. Tolerating a neighbor’s loud music over Labor Day Weekend may allow us to get along the rest of the year. Leaving actions like intimidation, discrimination, and harassment unaddressed guarantees that they will happen again and again.