There are the bullies you see on TV who are big, stupid, and say things like "why don't you make like a tree and get out of here," and then there are the sharks who escape not only the supposedly inevitable bully destiny of pumping gas, but -- thanks to a killer instinct and great timing -- any consequences for regularly indulging in their one true delight: going for the jugular. On top of being mean, they're smooth as hell; often the only evidence you'll have that you've even been hit by one of these barracudas is a strong feeling of bad about yourself. Here's a recipe for getting your bearings after a sneak attack.
½ cup emotional orienteering
1/3 cup get-out-of-Dodge
1/3 cup natural inquisitiveness
1 tablespoon perspective
1 tablespoon mental preservation
Recipe Yield: Social Kevlar
Begin by employing get-out-of-Dodge, liberally -- get away from the meany as quickly as possible. It's not in your best interest to fight at this point; you need to figure out just what went down and clear your head.
Once you're out of reach, fold in emotional orienteering and take stock of the situation; what exactly happened? At what point did the interaction turn from pleasant to unpleasant? What is it exactly that you couldn't figure out how to respond to? Even if it comes down to a barbed undertone in a would-be compliment, the true determiner of whether or not you're being bullied is how the interaction made you feel. *
Allow the mixture to coagulate with a dose of perspective: this is a sad person whose sense of self is derived from bouncing mean bubbles off other people. Resist any urges that might arise to feel victimized by their behavior; the less you can take personally why they chose to target you, the more impervious you'll be the next time they try to pull something.
Further solidify batter by adding mental preparedness. Ideally you'd never have to interact with people who make you feel bad, but chances are this person's a boomerang. Maybe it's someone you really love who has a petty streak. Maybe it's a boss who you can't afford to go Bridget Jones on. Shift focus onto how you can improve things next time for increased courage.
Stir in natural inquisitiveness and allow the batter to rise. The most elegant response when someone makes a remark that's humiliating, threatening, or otherwise unpleasant is simply to ask them why they said it. This holds them accountable for what they said without accusing them of anything or making you seem flustered. In very rude cases, telling someone you don't appreciate their remark or noting that the remark wasn't necessary can be equally effective and sends a slightly stronger message. The results may not be instant, but this person will back off eventually.
Keep the mixture in a cool, contained place until you're ready to serve. Serving size will vary; prepare multiple helpings as needed.
* If you think you may be being oversensitive, it never hurts to err on the side of caution. If there's one thing that's uniformly true about bullies, it's that they tend to persist until they get a reaction; if you're actually being targeted, it will become clear before too long.