top of page

When Banter Hurts

According to the Collins dictionary, ‘Banter is teasing or joking talk that is amusing and friendly.’ I think there is a little more to it than that. From having listened to much banter, there always seems to be a competitive element, to see who can have the last laugh. I have often thought of banter as a kind of witty word tennis, between family, friends or colleagues. In truth, I don’t understand the rules of the game, and the few attempts I have made to join in, were met with blank faces and silence.

We all need humour in our lives. Laughing makes us feel good, makes our load seem a little lighter, gives us a mental break from our worries.

Not everyone has the same sense of humour. My husband Simon finds videos of skateboarders coming a cropper on grind rails, utterly hilarious. I don’t. Maybe it’s the mum in me, but all I think about is bruises, broken bones and trips to A&E. I laugh out loud at Mock the Week and Would I Lie to You, not so Simon.

We can laugh at a joke about a politically sensitive subject. But afterwards we may find ourselves thinking more seriously about it, because the joke has brought the subject to the forefront of our minds.

Humour is an important and healthy part of human interaction.

Most of the time.

When it comes to broadcast entertainment, if we find comedy material offensive, we can choose to stop engaging with it. We can also complain to Ofcom. We have choices in how we deal with offensive humour.

With banter, things are not quite so simple. Banter is more personal, because it often directly involves us. I think banter tends to be a male thing. I don’t know any women who enjoy it. Then again, with a husband, three sons and a job in a male dominant environment, maybe my view is a little biased. All I know is that the female members of my family do not engage in banter. We all have a great sense of humour, we just don’t feel the need to take the piss out of each other. What we do is have a good laugh at ourselves, and life in general.

In our own homes, we have the choice of whether we listen to banter or not. We can go into another room, put headphones on, or ask a relentless banterer to give it a break, or shut up.

At work, we don't have much choice about having to listen to, or being the subject of, banter. In many places of work, banter seems to be the default form of communication. Unfortunately, unlike TVs, colleagues who enjoy dishing out endless banter, do not have off switches. When we have had enough of banter, we can ask a work colleague to give it a rest. Or if that doesn't work, tell them to shut up. As a last resort, we might even use stronger language. But if the relentless banterer is your boss, saying those same things and keeping your job, could be a bit of a problem.

When on the receiving end of banter, we may not always see the funny side of someone taking the mick out of us, no matter how friendly. Our family member, friend or colleague, may have no idea they have hit a nerve.

If that happens, we should be able to say that we know they were only joking, but we are sensitive about that subject. We should be able to ask that they don't joke about it again. Normally, the banterer would be mortified at having accidently hurt our feelings. As an example, take two work colleagues, the conversation should go something like this.  

‘I know you were only joking, but I am really sensitive about my height, and what you said made me feel self-conscious and embarrassed, hurt my feelings a bit, you know?’ 

‘Aw, mate, I didn’t realise. No problem. Feel like that about my weight to be honest, so totally get it. We all good, yeah?’ 

‘Hey, we're cool.’ 

A hug may or may not follow.

After that, weight and height jokes are banished from future banter between the two colleagues, and no real harm is done. In fact, some good has come out of the situation. It started a conversation that led to a greater understanding between the two.

But how often does this kind of thing happen?

‘I know you were only joking, but I am really sensitive about my height, and what you said made me feel self-conscious and embarrassed, hurt my feelings a bit, you know?’

‘Short man syndrome kicking in, eh? You can get built-up shoes for that (ha-ha). Rumour has it, Tom Cruise wears them sometimes. I know, we can start calling you Tom from now on. Tom Thumb (ha-ha-ha)’

And so, the ‘banter’ goes on. The receiver of such comments may continue to suffer their embarrassment in silence, after all, trying to explain how they feel, got them nowhere. Or one day the banterer may get more of a response than they bargained for.

How do I deal with banter? Well, I find it hard to tease or take the mick out of others, it just doesn’t feel right to me. I have come to the conclusion that if someone feels the need to make a joke at my expense, about my age, gender, or anything else of a personal nature, it says more about them, than it will ever say about me.

In a nutshell, if we are told our jokes or teasing is hurting someone, and we continue doing it, it is no longer banter. It is bullying.

In some workplaces, inappropriate and derogatory comments made about colleagues, are often swept under the banter carpet. This can make people reluctant to report further incidents. Some eventually leave their jobs because of this.

We probably won't know our work colleagues as well as our family or friends. We may not have a clue about their homelife, their struggles, their insecurities. If the person we are bantering with is not laughing. If they look away unsmiling. If they try to avoid future banter with us. We must recognise these signs that they are not finding our banter funny. If after having been told their banter is hurtful, the banterer persists, they may find themselves being reported for bullying.

If we can have honest conversations about banter, put a few boundaries in our relationships where needed, banter could be a much more positive thing. Banter can make the day a lot brighter, but it should never do so by darkening someone else's. 

bottom of page