On teasing

A psychologist tries to convince us that teasing is a good thing.

The reason teasing is viewed as inherently damaging is that it is too often confused with bullying. But bullying is something different; it’s aggression, pure and simple. Bullies steal, punch, kick, harass and humiliate. Sexual harassers grope, leer and make crude, often threatening passes. They’re pretty ineffectual flirts. By contrast, teasing is a mode of play, no doubt with a sharp edge, in which we provoke to negotiate life’s ambiguities and conflicts.

Well that makes things simple, but it makes them too simple. Bullying isn’t something entirely and clearly and unmistakably different – there’s a lot of overlap between the two. There’s also a lot of deliberate shifting back and forth between the two, and disguising of the transaction – in short there’s a lot of bullying (a lot of aggression and humiliation) that is called teasing (and perhaps even has a teasing aspect) but is really bullying (at least in part). Keltner gives this away with that ‘no doubt with a sharp edge’ – damn right with a sharp edge, and that’s why the whole subject is so fraught. How many billions of parents have squalled at their children how many times every day ‘stop teasing her/him/them!’? Teasing is very often mixed; it is not always or reliably purely affectionate or friendly or facetious; and it is massively subject to misunderstanding. I think Keltner is right that it shouldn’t be stamped out altogether everywhere, but it does need caution. Surely anyone who’s ever teased or been teased (i.e., everyone) knows this?

We may use “teasing” to refer to the affectionate banter of middle-school friends, to the offensive passes of impulsive bosses and to the language of heart-palpitating flirtation, to humiliation that scars psyches (harsh teasing about obesity can damage a child’s sense of self for years) and to the repartee that creates a peaceful space between siblings.

Exactly – and that’s why it’s not completely different from bullying. Of course harsh teasing about obesity can damage a child’s sense of self for years – it can damage it for life. So can harsh teasing about similar flaws – age, ugliness, you name it. It’s a ‘mode of play’ with huge potential for harm; it needs care in handling.

Still, it’s hard not to remember why teasing has a bad name when it results in what sounds an awful lot like humiliation. In situations where power asymmetries exist, as they do in a frat house, how do we separate a productive tease from a damaging one? In part it’s the nature of the provocation. Productive teasing is rarely physically hurtful and doesn’t expose deep vulnerabilities — like a romantic failure or a physical handicap.

Yes but then there’s the other kind, which does expose deep vulnerabilities, and is not entirely different from bullying.

I bet the Times got a lot of mail on this piece, and I bet I can guess how it went.

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