I have never been very great at playful teasing. I have never been teased too much, though in high school, like everyone I’m sure, I was the butt of plenty of jokes and suffered a little bit of teasing that did not make me happy. Teasing exists on the same sliding scale as bulling and is generally a more safe version (in my mind) than outright bullying. It can go too far, however, teasing can have an important role in our relationships and can be a positive as opposed to just a negative.
In The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write, “To tease is to provoke a small amount of suffering in a playful manner, often accompanied by laughter.” We joke with each other and playfully tease each other as a way to show that we are close. Giving someone a hard time about a particular personality trait, about a goofy thing that they did, or slightly bothering them in one way or another can be an opportunity for both people to show that they do care about the other and are close friends.
The authors continue, “Teasing is good-natured when it provokes only light suffering, and when the offense is offset by enough warmth and affinity that the person being teased generally feels more loved than ridiculed. The fact that it’s hard to tease strangers-because there’s no preexisting warmth to help mitigate the offense-means that the people we tease are necessarily close to us.”
We can only tease those who are close to us. We can only tease people who know we are their ally, and we can only tease in small degrees that allow us to be close and compassionate while still messing with the other person. If we don’t surround our teasing with enough warmth and care, then we are just bullying the other person. This can be a challenge because the level of warmth and affection that each person is going to need to offset each individual act of teasing will vary. At the very least however, we can remember that if we are going to playfully tease someone, we should make sure first that we are close enough with them to joke about personal things, and that we surround the teasing with enough niceness and signals of friendship to offset the suffering of the teasing act.