Communication Currents

The Ups and Downs of Teasing

April 1, 2009
Health Communication, Interpersonal Communication

Age-old sayings such as separate the wheat from the chaff and don't throw out the baby with the bathwater remind us that although it can be expeditious to discard good things with the bad, it is rarely wise. Teasing can be a positive and prosocial force in the social lives of children, yet in an attempt to curtail school violence, it is being tossed out of schools with the more negative form of interaction, bullying. Carol Bishop Mills and Amy Carwile, researchers at the University of Alabama, argue that parents and teachers should learn more about the benefits of teasing, and help children and teens understand how it can be used in positive, rather than negative ways.

The research on bullying makes it clear that peer victimization can lead to a host of unwelcome outcomes such as depression, anger, lower self-esteem, and increased incidence of high school drop-out. Clearly, the news media has picked up on the cases of school violence that were initially blamed on teasing and bullying, from a twelve year old in Missouri shooting a classmate, to the infamous high school massacre in Columbine.

Despite the fact that teasing is often considered as the twin of bullying, and is often referred to as “teasing and bullying” in news stories, teasing has a light side--a positive side--that bullying does not. Research over the past 15 years has demonstrated that teasing can be a positive force in relationships. Teasing is a form of play in families, and even parents can tease children to enjoy their interactions with them. In work places, teasing can strengthen bonds between employees. It can help people express affection in romantic relationships and improve likeability in groups.

Grade-school children know that happy, fun teasing can be an important part of play and can enhance their ability to express liking for one another. In other words, teasing can be a way of building and maintaining relationships, bringing up difficult topics, and just clowning around with friends. And, a cursory examination of your own day-to-day life will bring examples of teasing that have made you feel unique, happy, closer to another human being, even loved. Even if what the person is teasing about is true, such as a friend saying “Wow--did you write that letter with your feet?” in reference to your sloppy handwriting, you can enjoy the provocation because you know it is meant in friendship.

Teasing is a fascinating communication skill. Unlike bullying, which is a demonstration of aggression and intent to harm, teasing allows people to present a challenge to another person in a playful way. Like playing on a seesaw, teasing requires an understanding of balance, and it takes two willing participants to be done well. Teasing is a balancing act between a challenge to the needs and wants of another person, with the sense or message that the teaser is playing around. If the target of the tease does not understand the play, the tease is perceived in hurtful ways. If the target does perceive the tease as playful, then the game can continue. Teasing well, and taking teasing well, are skills that adults can help children learn.

For instance, a child who wants to been seen as smart may be teased when a friend sneaks a peek at his straight-A report card and says “Wow, you are going to flunk out, aren't you?” Often those comments will be presented with a laugh or ironic sense of seriousness. For instance, the teaser might grin when he ribs his friend about flunking. Yet, if the teaser openly dislikes the target, or makes the comment in a disparaging way, the target may see the tease as a mean-spirited insult.

Parents and educators should be able to recognize good teasing from bad teasing, and if all parties are enjoying the tease, allow it to continue. Through positive teasing, children are learning valuable skills for getting along, including showing affection and dealing with conflict. If the target looks upset however, it should be clear that he or she is not seeing the tease in a positive light. Yet, if it is clear the teaser is trying to have fun with the target, intervention does not always mean stopping the teasing permanently. In fact, it can be used as an opportunity to teach children how the play in teasing works, by highlighting the play cues to the child, either directly, in later talks, or indirectly by joining the game.

In other cases, children might claim to be “just teasing,” but it is clear that their comments are cruel and mean-spirited. Then, the behavior needs to be stopped. There are certain topics that are not funny to most people and certainly not acceptable in schools: race, weight, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, and disability to name just a few.

A child calling another child “a loser,” “a retard,” “fatso,” or using epithets of any kind must be stopped. If the taunters insist they were teasing, educators can explain how teasing requires play, and note that the victim was clearly not seeing any play. The educators may further explain that some topics are simply off-limits for teasing. More importantly, if the behaviors persist, educators need to follow-up with disciplinary action before the behavior gets out of control. “I'm just teasing,” cannot be an acceptable excuse for blatantly cruel acts. Calling bullying “teasing” does not make it so.

But how do we determine when teasing is harmless and fun? Mills and Carwile provide a model for educators called The Teasing Totter. The Teasing Totter helps parents and educators look for communication cues that would help them identify whether the teasing should be encouraged, discouraged, or stopped immediately. For instance, when children are clearly friends who engage in ritualistic teasing, both parties are laughing and smiling, and the comments provide no more than minor irritation, the adults can let the teasing continue, and even use examples to later explain why some teasing works well and can be fun with friends. However, if it is clear that children dislike each other, are teasing about unacceptable topics, displaying no play cues, or when there are visible power differences, the behavior must be stopped.

Of course, there are times when the meaning of a tease can be ambiguous for both the children involved and the adults who witness it. You may not be sure if the tease is in fun and friendship or designed to hurt the other person. When this happens, it is because the play and challenge are perfectly balanced, like a seesaw in a horizontal position; it can go in either direction. For example, if there are visible play cues like smiling, and the parties are friends, yet the target seems mildly upset, what then? These opportunities are ideal for helping targets contextualize the meaning of the message and the way it was presented, as well as explaining to the teaser how his or her message may be taken in alternative ways. In life, much of our adult communication is ambiguous, and learning how to tease, and take teasing, is just one more way of increasing our communication competence.