Sometimes I wonder if I do enough to speak up in the presence of injustice. When I teach people assertiveness skills, boundaries to prevent burnout and when I encourage my client to beir honest selves, when I have difficult conversations with family members, colleagues, my spouse and my in-laws, I feel empowered and I feel that honesty is the way, and that everything is easy when we choose transparency over being indirect, and when we choose to speak up towards our needs and towards what we believe it is important. I wonder how I can make this message become universal, and have the entire world taking assertiveness trainings for their own wellbeing.
Then, a train ride happens. From Italy to Switzerland, a journey that we frequently do with my husband to see friends who live in Milan and Turin, simply for a long weekend. I always feel very conforted when I take this train, it feels a little bit like coming home, even if my home is much more south! Being on that train is a rollercoaster of emotions: always full, always filled with people talking, you hear a lot of Italian, and then sometimes you see the weather change when we get into Switzerland 😉 and those trains are usually packed on a Sunday evening, when everyone comes back from the weekend.
Usually, there are border checks, with police or its border equivalent checking the train for suspicious luggage and/or people. A routine check. This time we were all required to show our passports, which is fine, but also unusual, because they normally do more of a “random” check. A guy is sitting opposite of me and my husband and he looks a little bit thrown off by the passport request, I think just because he was all comfy watching something on his computer, and had to stand up and go fetch his documents. The look of the border police immediately falls on him: I feel he’s a target now...He is the only one who is requested to show both the passport and the Swiss residency permit, and we are not. He has all documents needed and he shows them to the police guy, who says in German (we were still in Italian territory though):
- “Do you live in Switzerland”? (It was obvious from the residency permit already)
- “How long have you been living in Switzerland”?
- The target person replies in English: “Can you speak English please, I don’t speak German. I have been living in Switzerland for 6 years.”
- Police, with a little bit of an aggressive tone, staring at him: “Well, you should Speak German after six years, shouldn’t you?”
- Target guy: “I work in English” – I also want to admit it, the target guy seemed a little nonchalant himself, but he also looked a bit intimidated.
- Police: “Well, SO WHAT? After six years you should speak German”!
Now, this conversation might seem innocent in a written form, without body language and tone and eye contact description, but half train was terrified by the presence of these policemen. The Italian target guy was literally bullied, in the span of 1.5 minutes. Even if the policeman’s sentence or opinion could have been correct, this is not the point. The goal of this encounter is to check documents, not to bully people or judge their language abilities. One might argue that for the police bullying is a tool to uncover unlawful behavior, or to make people crack under pressure, but it was clear that this guy was the typical expat working in Switzerland, and there are tons of us around the country. There was no need to make him feel small or bad because of his linguistic abilities in that very circumstance. If the target guy was at a citizenship interview, I could totally understand the remark, but not in this instance.
I felt powerless. The worst part for me? I wanted to say something and I didn’t. I could have just said “Excuse me, what has German language knowledge to do with the present situation?” I could have defended this guy. And I did not, because that policeman made me completely afraid. But I wonder how different it could have been if I had spoken up. My husband told me that these kinds of situations only have one consequence: the police might have found an excuse to bully me because of my potential defending the guy, and that they might even have requested me out of the train if I was very defiant. And that the best was to say nothing.
Even if there is truth in this, this triggered something in me. It made me think of bigger causes and fearless people who actually lost their lives pursuing the mission of stopping the silence. It basically made me think of Palermo, my home town, and especially of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two anti-mafia prosecutors who lost their lives in the 90s because of the mafia attacks, and because they were outspoken, seeking justice against mafia crimes, and because they were uncovering truths which were so big and so powerful. I still remember the sound of the police sirens in the entire city, the pictures of the highway to Palermo airport completely devastated when a bomb exploded there, I remember my mother’s looking puzzled when these killings were happening in neighborhoods 10 minutes away from our building. I never completely made peace with how Palermo’s culture of silence makes me sad. I was also reminded of Russian dissidents and people who speak up against the Ukraine war and how they are silenced. Sometimes they smile when they get arrested, which is a paradox and it is sad, but perhaps they have encountered some kind of inner justice against oppression and bullying by the simple act of protesting.
This made me remember my mission. Let’s speak up, let’s practice the art of telling people what we feel it is not right. Let’s stop blaming ourselves as “too emotional” or “too sensitive” or with the frequent label of “perhaps I am exagerating if I say this/that”. Of course, check in with yourself on each occasion, to understand whether perhaps sometimes you take things too personally or you are making them too big, but do not dismiss the feelings when you feel in your gut that an injustice has been made. Say “I feel this is not right”, say “this needs to change or this needs to stop”. To your boss, to your spouse, to your family,. Not aggressively, but assertively. I feel that by daring to do this, we can change something, we can make things better, having more creativity, getting more love and attention and respect.
For when my husband, who’s Colombian, went to the doctor because his nose was constantly bleeding, and the only assumption was that he had used cocaine, for when we were still not married and travelled in the USA and we were sarcastically told by the police “well, if you have the same address and are living together, I’d assume you guys are what, brother and sister? Are you related”?, for when my mom’s doctor dismissed her worry about a lung infection and he told her that this was just her imagination. For all these times, think about a moment where you could have said something, and act.
Self-assertiveness is the answer to a lot of discontent and to the worsening of mental problems, and it is the answer to potential bullying and abuse.