There’s a mini-discussion over at Transblawg re the first use of the term “mobbing” in an institutional context. Matt Bulow says that a Swede coined this usage, although the author he quotes, Heinz Leymann, says he borrowed it from another Swede, Heinemann, who used it in education and had it from Konrad “Gooseman” Lorenz. In fact I believe that, as one would expect, it first arose in the English-speaking world, and I’m sure that those of you with OED access will be able to cite more examples.

Firstly, the term crops up in descriptions of animal behaviour well before the great Dr Lorenz got into this type of thing. Here, for example, is Siegfried Sassoon in The Old Huntsman, published in 1918:

It’s queer how, in the dark, comes back to mind
Some morning of September. We’ve been digging
In a steep sandy warren, riddled with holes,
And I’ve just pulled the terrier out and left
A sharp-nosed cub-face blinking there and snapping,
Then in a moment seen him mobbed and torn
To strips in the baying hurly of the pack.
I picture it so clear: the dusty sunshine
On bracken, and the men with spades, that wipe
Red faces: one tilts up a mug of ale.
And, having stopped to clean my gory hands,
I whistle the jostling beauties out of the wood.

Funnily enough, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Darwin to use the term in this way, although he does note in the course of his visit to Tierra del Fuego that

Much as our white skins surprised the natives, by Mr. Low’s account a negro-cook to a sealing vessel, did so more effectually; and the poor fellow was so mobbed and shouted at that he would never go on shore again.

Secondly, instances of workplace use occur in the English-speaking world more than a century before all these Swedish professors got involved, and unsurprisingly they also precede examples of application to animals. There is an example in Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street (1853). The narrator – a lawyer – has employed a gentleman called Bartleby to work alongside two existing copyists, Turkey and Nippers and a junior called Ginger Nut. Bartleby, however, increasingly responds with “I would prefer not to” when requested to undertake tasks relevant to his employ. This leads to a classic mini-mobbing scene in which the narrator, Turkey and Nippers confront Bartleby with his behaviour:

Again I sat ruminating what I should do. Mortified as I was at his behavior, and resolved as I had been to dismiss him when I entered my office, nevertheless I strangely felt something superstitious knocking at my heart, and forbidding me to carry out my purpose, and denouncing me for a villain if I dared to breathe one bitter word against this forlornest of mankind. At last, familiarly drawing my chair behind his screen, I sat down and said: “Bartleby, never mind then about revealing your history; but let me entreat you, as a friend, to comply as far as may be with the usages of this office. Say now you will help to examine papers to-morrow or next day: in short, say now that in a day or two you will begin to be a little reasonable: – say so, Bartleby.”
“At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable,” was his mildly cadaverous reply.
Just then the folding-doors opened, and Nippers approached.
He seemed suffering from an unusually bad night’s rest, induced by
severer indigestion than common. He overheard those final words of Bartleby.
“Prefer not, eh?” gritted Nippers – “I’d
prefer him, if I were you, sir,” addressing me – “I’d
prefer him; I’d give him preferences, the stubborn mule! What
is it, sir, pray, that he prefers not to do now?”
Bartleby moved not a limb.
“Mr. Nippers,” said I, “I’d prefer that
you would withdraw for the present.”
Somehow, of late I had got into the way of involuntarily using
this word “prefer” upon all sorts of not exactly suitable occasions.
And I trembled to think that my contact with the scrivener had already and
seriously affected me in a mental way. And what further and deeper aberration
might it not yet produce? This apprehension had not been without efficacy
in determining me to summary means.
As Nippers, looking very sour and sulky, was departing, Turkey
blandly and deferentially approached.
“With submission, sir,” said he, “yesterday
I was thinking about Bartleby here, and I think that if he would but prefer
to take a quart of good ale every day, it would do much towards mending
him, and enabling him to assist in examining his papers.”
“So you have got the word too,” said I, slightly
“With submission, what word, sir,” asked Turkey,
respectfully crowding himself into the contracted space behind the screen,
and by so doing, making me jostle the scrivener. “What word, sir?”
“I would prefer to be left alone here,” said Bartleby,
as if offended at being mobbed in his privacy.

Origins apart, I think that the greater incidence of current usage in Europe may be best explained by reference to different corporate and legislative cultures. In a paper entitled The Workplace Mobbing Syndrome, response and prevention in the public sector (PDF), Linda Shallcross writes:

In English speaking countries with traditionally hierarchical bureaucratic structures, ‘bullying’ has been socially constructed as male type behaviour whereas ‘mobbing’ appears to be a product of flatter administrative structures in those European and Scandinavian countries where there is more of a sense of industrial democracy. It is in these countries, and in those sectors where women are in the majority that the mobbing syndrome has been found to occur. This is not intended to mean that only men bully or that only women use passive aggressive mobbing behaviours as it is clear in the research that both men and women can be either perpetrators or targets. It is also not intended to mean that bullying only occurs in male dominated bureaucratic structures or that mobbing only occurs in women dominated flatter structures.

As she notes, in the US workplace mobbing and bullying are not legally recognised, while in other Anglo countries they tend to be dealt with using existing employment legislation. On the other hand, countries including Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Spain, The Netherlands and Norway have introduced legislation aimed at tackling the problem, which has presumably led to a thriving legal and therapy industry, which presumably explains the high proportion of Europe-based ghits for “mobbing”.

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