The Clear Line Between Banter and Bullying

One of the most common excuses for workplace bullying is, “It was only banter.” However, there exists a fine line between harmless banter and hurtful bullying.

The old I-was-just-joking around ploy underlines a major problem in the modern workplace—too many people don’t understand where playful teasing ends and hurtful bullying begins.

The banter cop-out aims to shift the blame from the perpetrator to the target, suggesting they’re “too sensitive,” “thin-skinned” or “can’t take a joke.”

Often people are told they are being hypersensitive to banter. But if they are repeated personal attacks, then it’s NOT a joke or banter. So how do you spot the difference between playful, harmless teasing and outright bullying?

Recognising the line between banter and bullying

It starts with understanding the definitions. Bullying is intentionally harmful, persistent and typically involves a power imbalance. It sets out to make a person feel worse about themselves.

On the other hand, banter is a playful exchange of teasing remarks. It’s mutual, good-natured and grounded in friendly humour.

For example, you might tease someone about their clothing choice and they’ll reply that at least they have a love life. Or someone might kid you about being distracted by a group of women at the basketball court, and you then point out that even when distracted, you can at least hit your free throws.

Bantering is laughing with someone—not at them.

Essentially, the difference comes down to how the remarks make the recipient feel:

  • Are they aimed squarely at personal insecurities?
  • Are they a one-off teasing in private or a repeated barrage of put-downs in front of an audience?
  • Do they make the target feel outnumbered, paint them as a social outcast or suggest they’re inferior in some way?

If it hurts and it’s repetitive, it’s not banter—it’s bullying.

Why Does Bullying Occur In The Workplace?

Bullying may occur in workplaces because upper management is:

  • part of the bullying problem themselves
  • more concerned about presenting a positive company façade than dealing with uncomfortable events
  • unsupportive or dismissive of staff who report bullying
  • unsure of how to respond because of inexperience or a lack of well-defined anti-bullying policies
  • fostering a workplace culture that encourages rather than dissuades bullying behaviour
  • any combination of the above.

The “hoping it will go away by itself” strategy almost never works. In fact, it merely encourages the office bully to push the boundaries and see what else they can get away with. If no one is prepared to stand up to them, they’ll keep escalating the abuse to feed their feelings of power.

When a workplace colleague doesn’t know (or care) they’ve crossed the line between banter and bullying, tell them—whether you’re the manager, a bystander or the target. Because the quicker a hurtful behavior is called out, the sooner it’ll stop.

Bullyology® is passionate about raising awareness on the effects of bullying and helping people break the silence. If you would like to book us for a training course or speaking event, please get in touch.

Please share with like-minded colleagues who can benefit from our insights and get social with us.