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.

To be at the receiving end of banter can be an uncomfortable experience for some

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, often so as to “fit in”.

How might the recipient feel?

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.

Empathy brings you closer to others and them to you

I often find that the big blind spot in someone’s development is their lack of empathy. It can show up in various ways, like the lack of sensitivity to what is happening for another, the inability to make authentic emotional responses when someone is speaking of a personal concern, the inability to pick up on another’s perspective or even simply to assume that other people think and feel as they do.

I was very struck by it very recently in observing someone listening to another as she shared what had being going on for her. The woman went through the motions of listening, but the feedback later was that the speaker didn’t feel the person was emotionally “plugged in” to what she was speaking about. It was as though she wasn’t really “getting it” and thus the speaker had not really felt supported or really understood. It’s that experience that “the lights are on but nobody’s at home”. She made all the seemingly right noises, but it lacked a sense of connection or authenticity, what some might call “resonance”.

What is empathy?

Empathy is described as being the ability to sense how another is feeling, to pick up on and respond to someone’s unspoken concerns or feelings, or to understand the issues or concerns behind another’s feelings. It can be a feeling response and a thinking response.

It requires self awareness. It means being able to sense and understand one’s own emotional responses, a “feeling within”. Hence one can resonate with another, because one can sense it inside. Self awareness can mean also that one can discriminate between what is “mine” and what is “another’s”. Hence you don’t confuse your own stuff with another’s. You might get a reminder, but you can make the distinction. This might seem an “advanced” skill, but then when another is sharing of themselves, it won’t serve them if you get into your own stuff. Rather, that is to put it on one side, in Gestalt the rule of “√©poch√©“, like putting it in your pocket!

To get where another is coming from is to open up whole lines of communication and action that may otherwise be missed. As above, you can offer better support and be better able to offer help that is tailored more appropriately to their needs. Your communication may be more in line with where they are coming from and with their needs. People may have more trust in you. It is then easier to bring people with you, as with a leader, since what you are saying may more accurately resonate with them, or takes better account of their needs. In business it makes you a better “people manager”. In relationships it is more easy to resolve disagreements or to head them off since you say and do takes account of the other’s perspective and potentially involves or includes them.

While people may go through the motions of appearing to take account of another’s perspective, if empathy is lacking it will very likely lack authenticity and therefore credibility. To neglect empthy is to miss out on a whole world of being with others that brings people closer together and more as One.