Chapter 33: Teasing
Teasing is a common element in communication, even among adults. Let’s take a closer look at teasing and find out what is actually going on.
Stephanie’s Example: Don’t Tease My Hair!
Stephanie gets a perm. It looks odd and frizzy. She asks her friend Alice’s opinion, and Alice says, “It looks like you stuck your finger in an electrical outlet!” She laughs, then says, “Just kidding.” But despite that, Stephanie’s feelings are hurt. Alice gets annoyed; after all, she was only teasing. “What’s wrong with you, Stephanie?” Alice retorts. “Can’t you take a joke?” Alice turns to her other friends for support and they band together to defend Alice. “You’re so sensitive, Stephanie! Alice was just teasing; she didn’t mean anything by it!”
What actually happened in this story? Let’s break it down and take a closer look.
Stephanie gets a perm. It looks odd and frizzy. She asks her friend Alice’s opinion, and Alice says, “It looks like you stuck your finger in an electrical outlet!”
If the story ended here, what would you think of Alice? Would you think she was being a good friend to Stephanie? Would you think she was being mean and hurtful? Would you assume she was “only teasing”?
She laughs, then says, “Just kidding.”
Does this change your opinion of what Alice said to Stephanie? Does it cancel out any hurtfulness or negativity? Does it change your opinion of Alice herself or her friendship with Stephanie?
But despite that, Stephanie feels hurt. Alice gets annoyed; after all, she was only teasing. “What’s wrong with you, Stephanie?” Alice retorts. “Can’t you take a joke?” Alice turns to her other friends for support and they band together to defend Alice. “You’re so sensitive, Stephanie! Alice was just teasing; she didn’t mean anything by it!”
Who do you think is acting most maturely and responsibly in this story? Do you feel that Alice is wrong for teasing Stephanie? Do you feel that Stephanie is wrong for being too thin-skinned? Take a moment to think about these questions. Gather your own thoughts and feelings about teasing and about this story, then read on to hear our take on it.
Strip away all the scripts of what society calls acceptable and look behind that to see what’s actually going on: teasing allows us to say hurtful things to someone without social consequences. We choose to communicate honesty and authentically, and teasing is neither.
Alice said mean things to Stephanie, but then “took them back” by saying that she was “just teasing.” This way, Alice can verbally attack Stephanie without being accountable for her words. Teasing is a social “get out of trouble free card” that allows the teaser to say anything at all and to take zero responsibility for it.
Alice’s intent does matter (she may have intended only humor and not offense) but the end result matters too. If Stephanie feels hurt as a result of Alice’s unkind words, then “I didn’t mean it” might not make Stephanie feel better. Words, once spoken, cannot be unspoken, and there are many ways to be funny without being hurtful.
Teasing is not nice, considerate, or positive. The dictionary defines teasing as “to vex, to annoy, to ridicule someone,” and that’s what you’re doing when you tease. It may seem funny to you, but you may be making the usual error. You may have a thick skin, but that doesn’t mean everyone else does.
If you’re a parent, you’ve likely had to deal with your child coming to you after an incident in which they were the object of teasing; kids treat each other cruelly and adults allow this negative behavior because it’s “just teasing.” We’re taught from a young age that we can say the nastiest things if we tack on “I’m just teasing!” to the end of whatever we say.
Not only is teasing a socially acceptable way to be mean, it’s also a way to say anything you want with no fear of repercussion. “I was teasing!” gets you out of responsibility for the hurt you’ve caused someone else. Not only that, but teasing actually turns your victim into the villain, as in the story when Alice’s friends blamed Stephanie for being too sensitive to “take a joke.”
Another form of teasing, while more gentle, is hurtful in a different way: teasing can be limiting. We’ve already talked about rephrasing words that limit yourself; now we’ll talk about ways in which words can limit others.
Kyeli’s Story: “Pace Is Amusingly Unobservant!”1
Pace used to be very unobservant. She wouldn’t see much going on around her and it often took a lot to get her to notice things. I would occasionally tease her about it by saying things like, “Even Pace would notice that!” when something was blatantly obvious. I always smiled and used a gentle tone, and she knew I meant no malice. For a long time, she was fine with it.
When we started focusing on the ill effects of teasing, we realized that even this gentle, playful form of teasing was harmful — I was limiting Pace by putting her in the unobservant box, both in my mind and in hers, by verbally reinforcing this negative behavior. One afternoon, she announced that she was no longer unobservant and was going to pay attention to the world around her. I supported her by weeding out my teasing language and she became quite observant. Our relationship improved, too, because we felt closer to each other. I no longer teased her and she became more attentive!
As with “I’m only teasing,” there are other socially acceptable phrases used to hurt others and get away with it. In the southern United States, one of these phrases is “Bless her heart.” For example, a girl arrives late to a meeting. As the meeting disperses, one of the other people in attendance leans over and says in a sugary voice, “You just don’t have the brains God gave a donkey, bless your heart. Can’t tell time to save your soul.” You can say the nastiest things, but as long as you append “bless her heart,” it’s completely socially acceptable.
“I’m just saying” is another poison dart. You can make any sort of inflammatory or insulting comment, but as long as you repeatedly say, “I’m just saying,” it is difficult to socially justify calling you on your rudeness or meanness. “I’m just saying” is often accompanied by a defensive gesture of palms facing outward, nonverbally reinforcing the message of “Don’t blame me! I said something, but I just said it, so that means I don’t have to take any responsibility for it!” Being socially acceptable doesn’t make it right or good to verbally hurt others. This is why we dislike teasing. It’s hurtful, unhelpful, and disingenuous.
Teasing often functions as a defense mechanism, instinctively shot out to protect ourselves from what we feel is an attack, especially when we’re in groups of our peers. We tend towards teasing when we feel threatened or upset, but don’t want to let our true feelings show. Teasing can also be a cover for our feelings if we’re afraid to be authentic or to ask for what we actually want: “If you miss my party, I will destroy you!” can be a teasing cover for “It hurt my feelings the last time you didn’t come to my party, so please come this time.”
Kyeli’s Story: Teasing to Hide the Hurt
One evening, Pace decided at the last minute to stay home instead of go to a party with me as we’d previously planned. I went upstairs to get ready to go, and as I came back downstairs, she said she would miss me. I retorted, “I’ll be having too much fun to miss you.” She looked upset and said that I’d hurt her feelings. My initial reaction? “Oh! But I was just teasing!“
We talked it out. I realized I was upset because we’d been planning to go together for several weeks, and having her bail at the last minute hurt my feelings and even made me feel like she didn’t want to be with me. She reassured me that wasn’t the case, that she felt tired and antisocial, and she loved me and would, indeed, miss me. I apologized for teasing her and for hurting her feelings, she apologized for hurting mine, and I went on to the party in a much better mood.
Imagine how much better communication would be if we replaced teasing with open, honest, and authentic communication. Instead of “What’s the matter? Can’t read your digital watch?” rephrase to: “I’m feeling frustrated because we didn’t start on time, and I would like some reassurance that you value our time together.” Instead of “You look like a bird nested in your hair!” rephrase to: “Oh, did you notice that your hair looks a bit tangled today? Are you cool with that? If not, I’ll be happy to help you brush it out.” Instead of “Whoa, did you get dressed in the dark?” rephrase to: “Those colors don’t look like they match to me. Do they look good to you?”
We can always express our feelings clearly and honestly, without hurting the recipient, if we give it some thought and consider the feelings of our partner. The next time you encounter teasing (as the teaser or the teasee) take a moment to think about the true message buried underneath the teasing. Wouldn’t it be better to drop the teasing and simply communicate the underlying message itself?
1. This is the same story we told in Chapter 32: Rephrasing things positively, this time told from Kyeli’s perspective instead of Pace’s.