One of the most common excuses for workplace bullying is ‘it was only banter’. 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’.
So how do you spot the difference between playful, harmless teasing and outright bullying: sexism, homophobia, racism and other forms of victimisation?
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. Banter, on the other hand, 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; 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.
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 hurtful behavior is called out, the sooner it’ll stop.
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Jessica Hickman is a professional member of these associations: