When banter becomes abusive to another

When does banter become abusive, such as for example harassment? I was having an interesting discussion about this the other day and most in the group thought that banter was good-natured humour directed towards someone else. How can this be a problem? However, I suggested that one test as to whether it is no longer “good natured” is how the recipent might feel as a result.

If you look up the word “banter” the OED has it as “the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks”. In certain organisations banter can be quite common-place, and it can be part of the culture of groups and what helps cement how they work together. Many will say it makes for a friendly workplace, and would look askance on people who challenge it. Yet there can be a fine dividing line between humour which is innocent and that in which one participant feels uncomfortable. What is more, the culture or the character of the recipient may be such that people may be reluctant to “go public” and challenge the interaction.

Let’s say for example that the teasing, which for one person may be quite innocent may have uncomfortable connotations for another. Under the 2010 Equality Act in the UK certain “protected” areas include gender and gender reassignment, disability, ethnicity, religion or belief, age, and sexual orientation. Somebody might for example include potentially unfavourable references to aspects of another that touch on one of these areas of sensitivity. Or, one person might make uncomfortable references to another’s personal characteristics. All under the guise of “humour”. Then there is the distinction between “innocent” humour and that with a different underlying agenda, a kind of indirect communication at another’s expense. The gradations can be fine ones, and subtle too. One colleague who experienced the hurtful end of a certain kind of banter says that when banter has a less wholesome intent, “you can know it because it feels like a knife in the guts.”

Some are reminded of childhood experiences when they were teased at school and all would laugh at the jokes aimed at them. Many would learn to laugh with the others in the hope of deflecting the attention, and try to appear not to be hurt but instead to “take a joke”. It might even be more socially acceptable that you could do this.

What can be lacking in some of these situations is empathy, the ability to perceive another’s perspective, an aspect of emotional intelligence, how another might feel. By contrast, being able to sense another’s perspective can cause one to pause and reflect before speaking. What might work with one person might not go down so well with another.

Moreover the means by which people can enjoy humour can help foster one’s role in a group, and the level of influence enjoyed, and yet needs also a degree of integrity in the use of that humour, in that it is used with respect and which in turn honours another person’s rights. Our society is less geared to earning brownie points by the extent to which one person shows integrity and respect, as against power, influence and esteem in the group. Yet it might be a measure of how far we are progressing as humans in society when the former is what people in the ultimate are remembered for rather than the latter.