The big tease

The New York Times has an interesting article arguing that the recent public trend for outlawing ‘teasing’ as a form of bullying is a step too far, owing to psychological research showing that it’s part of normal social interaction and can actually enhance relationships.

The piece is by psychologist Dacher Keltner, and looks at teasing among children, as well as in adults and romantic partners.

He argues that teasing is not only wrongly outlawed, but is a form of social play that is essential for learning to manage complex social interactions.

Our rush to banish teasing from social life has its origins in legitimate concerns about bullies on the playground and at work. We must remember, though, that teasing, like so many things, gets better with age. Starting at around 11 or 12, children become much more sophisticated in their ability to hold contradictory propositions about the world — they move from Manichaean either-or, black-or-white reasoning to a more ironic, complex understanding. As a result, as any chagrined parent will tell you, they add irony and sarcasm to their social repertory. And it is at this age that you begin to see a precipitous drop in the reported incidences of bullying. As children learn the subtleties of teasing, their teasing is less often experienced as damaging.

In seeking to protect our children from bullying and aggression, we risk depriving them of a most remarkable form of social exchange. In teasing, we learn to use our voices, bodies and faces, and to read those of others — the raw materials of emotional intelligence and the moral imagination. We learn the wisdom of laughing at ourselves, and not taking the self too seriously. We learn boundaries between danger and safety, right and wrong, friend and foe, male and female, what is serious and what is not. We transform the many conflicts of social living into entertaining dramas. No kidding.

It’s quite a comprehensive piece, looking at how we use the subtleties of language to signal the ‘teasing mode’ as well as passing on important social messages without being explicit.

I wonder how this translates across cultures. I’m always struck who the British tendency to ‘take the piss’ out of each other and themselves is not necessarily shared by other cultures, at least to the same degree or in the same situations.

Link to NYT piece ‘In Defense of Teasing’.

One thought on “The big tease”

  1. Hi Vaughan,
    Thanks for carrying the article.
    We have to make a clear distinction about when teasing is bullying and when its not.
    When two people agree to tease and know the limits and boundaries, teasing can be a lot of fun. And even allow things to be said in a friendly way that might be hard to say or hear in other ways.
    But when only the “teaser” wants to tease, and the “teasee” doesn’t want it, then it’s bullying. And the effects on the “teasee” can be quite damaging if the “teasee” does rise up and stop it. When the “teasee” stops it, he or she grows much stronger in character, courage and skill.
    Disclosure: I’m a practical, pragmatic coach and consultant. Check out my website and blog ( I’ve written books like “How to Stop Bullies in their Tracks” and “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids”. Also CDs.
    Best wishes,

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