Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Teasing: Just Joking?

Teasing: Just Joking?

This is an article that's been brewing in my mind for a number of years observing so many of my clients expressing confusion, frustration or depression following hurtful communications from others described as "just joking." When my clients attempt to label these communications as hostile, the usual come back is, "What's wrong with you? Can't you take a joke?"

Let's take a look at a continuum of these types of communications.

*Humorous jokes, funny remarks, perhaps a pun or play on words, with no personal target.
*Teasing, poking fun, wisecracks, directed at another person.
*Picking, needling, short negatively toned messages directed at another person.
*Biting humor, hostile remarks toward another person purported to be funny.
*Sarcasm, clever comments which belittle others under the guise of humor.
*Cynicism, insults, communications to another when hostile intent is less disguised.

The fašade of humor is increasingly lost across this continuum, while the amount of direct hostility increases toward a personal target. Pure jokes are not a problem. Any of these kinds of communications delivered without a real personal target can also be funny or entertaining. Many standup comics use this type of negative humor which does entertain because the intended target is not a real person. Sarcastic comments can provoke spontaneous audience laughter based upon the comedian's wit and dexterity with words. The audience laughs with relief that the hostility in the comment is directed toward a hypothetical other person. For example, a few remarks by Groucho Marx: "No, Groucho is not my real name. I am breaking it in for a friend." "I have had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn't it."

When can teasing be playful, affectionate and bonding between two people? When it is reciprocal between individuals of equal personal power, mutually agreeable as to the tone and content of the teasing, and when there is no direct or indirect hostile undertone. Friends or couples can set up these playful and positive interaction patterns which cause no confusion or harm. The safest of these teasing interactions will be structured and ritualized so that the comments and retorts are expected and the laughing is lighthearted. Spontaneous teasing is more dangerous to relationships than are scripted comments because irritation toward the other person can creep into the teasing causing the affection to turn into put-downs and belittling masked as humor. I would also avoid teasing between parents and children. The personal power of the adult is always stronger than the child, and the adult's remarks can slip too easily into taunting instead of positive joking. Children have less experience with this medium of communication, and their attempts at joking turn too quickly into sarcastic comments or insults. Instead, communication between parents and children should be mutually respectful. A good book of children's jokes should suffice for parent-child humor, such as "knock knock" jokes or "chicken crossing the road" jokes.

Back to my original concern. Hostile teasing, picking, biting humor or sarcasm too often are insults poorly disguised as humor. They also are "double bind" communications which cause confusion, frustration, personal pain and anger in the recipient. The disguised message runs as follows. "I'm making fun of you and belittling you, but it's only humor. I don't really mean what I just said. There's something wrong with you when you don't accept my statements at face value as teasing even though my words are in fact critical and hostile." The more clever and witty the comment, the more difficult it is to respond. Sarcasm is especially problematic as the words often convey the opposite of the intended meaning. For example, let's say that you try to respond to teasing with a joke of your own. A sarcastic response delivered in a mocking tone, "that's so clever, ha,ha" negates your joke, making it difficult for you to respond in any constructive manner.

What to do? Its difficult to just walk away from the person taunting you because more of the same comments will likely follow. You will have to learn to be assertive and stand up to this kind of derogatory communication. "Call a spade a spade." That is, try to unmask the negative undertone or hostile intent of the picking or hurtful teasing. You can give your tormentor a copy of this article. You can ask that the person examine his or her intent in making these kinds of comments. If you receive an apology or a statement of intent to change, see if the two of you can script a playful teasing interaction. If you continue to receive hostile "teasing" comments, you can decide to seek out a therapist or couples counselor. You might look for therapists trained in the Gottman approach to couples counseling. This approach considers cynical and sarcastic comments as part of an attitude of contempt toward the spouse which predicts impending divorce unless a respectful at equilibrium is reestablished through therapeutic interventions.

Please let this article be a sign that teasers should carefully consider the results of their "jokes" on friends, loved ones and family members. Recipients of teasing and picking should consider their options carefully and decide how to protect themselves from these confusing and hurtful interactions. Fun is fun, but most teasing is not.