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Explanations > Relationships > Teasing

What is teasing? | Teasing as testing trust | Teasing as showing trust | Teasing as reciprocal banter | Teasing as disguised bullying | So What?


Teasing is a classic action that is found in relationships between people. Yet it is a rather strange way of showing friendship.

What is teasing?

Teasing is the curious action of deliberately confusing or annoying other people. In two words, it has been described as 'playful vexation', which suggests the intention of fun and a lack of seriousness.

Teasing as testing trust

If I deliberately confuse or annoy you, what is the underlying purpose? The normal response to teasing would be to become irritated and annoyed with the teaser, perhaps angrily rebuking their unkindness. So what is going on?

When I tease you, apart from the fun element, I am actually testing you and your view of our relationship. When people distrust one another, then they assess everything the other person says or does as a potential threat. But when we become friends with another person, we trust that they will not seek to harm us and so pause to consider apparently insulting actions as friendly in intent.

So when I tease you, I am actually testing our relationship, checking whether you trust me enough to know I would not seek to harm you.

Teasing as showing trust

As well as testing the trust of the other person, teasing demonstrates trust in them. If I trust you then I will assume you will not interpret my teasing as an insult or a threat, and that you will laugh rather than become angry with me.

Teasing is sticking your neck out, exposing yourself to the possible ire of the other person. When you tease them, you are demonstrating trust, showing that you are a friend.

Teasing as reciprocal banter

Teasing in friendship is seldom a one-way thing. When I tease you, it is also an invitation for you to tease me. Reciprocal teasing affirms the relationship by showing how each person trusts the other not to attack them and can safely risk the anger of the other. It is common for partners in minority and oppressed groups to use racist and other insults that would cause horror in other contexts. Extreme insult hence shows extreme trust.

Teasing often leads to laughter. Laughing is a common response to confusion being resolved. Jokes work this way, and so does teasing as the initial conflicting thoughts of a friend attacking is resolved in the realization that it is teasing.

Teasing as disguised bullying

Teasing can also be done as an act of domination. When one person 'teases' another and the second person feels only discomfort, then the teasing has not worked. Normally, a person who tries to tease and realizes that it had not worked will apologize. If, however, they look down on the teased person as being 'too serious' then this becomes an act of unkindness. It turns into bullying where the intent is to dominate, where the teasing is intended to harm and subjugate.

People who are bullied through 'teasing' may well pretend not to mind and even fake laughter. This allows the bully to keep oppressing them, even in a public forum (which makes the bullying much worse for the victim). Having established this pattern, it may continue for a long time.

Teasing can become accidental bullying when the teaser genuinely wants the other person to join in the fun and where they misinterpret smiles as acceptance of the teasing. A way of checking for accidental bullying is to watch for reciprocal teasing. If the teased person does not tease in return, then there may be something wrong.

The principle of reciprocity can also be used to check for bullying. Bullies often cannot take being teased themselves, so you can use attempted banter to weed them out. A typical consequent comment may be 'If you do not like being teased yourself, why do you try to tease others?'

So what?

Use teasing to test and develop a friendship, to see if people mind being teased and that they trust you not to really try to hurt them. Start with gentle insults and only go as far as the other person is comfortable. Then check that they tease you in return (and always take well). Try teasing people when you are by yourselves before doing it in public.

Beware of teasing people who do not like it, and respond assertively to people who try to use teasing as a way of dominating you.

See also

Using Humor, Trust


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