More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
How to Poke Fun
By Hara Estroff Marano, Psychology Today
Nove/Dec 1999

Teasing can actually bring couples closer. Poking fun is in fact an indispensable social tool, vital to all healthy relationships.

From the outside, teasing seems to be a twisted pleasure: affectionate and sort of insulting all at once. But Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, Ph.D, declares that poking fun is in fact an indispensable social tool, vital to all healthy relationships.

"Teasing is a way, when done appropriately, for people to correct others' costly mistakes," says Keltner, who published his findings in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. "It helps bring people closer."

Yet according to Keltner, who's been studying the tease for over a decade, it is one of the most misunderstood of social behaviors. Anglo-Americans have a particularly negative view of affectionate tormenting, focusing almost exclusively on its darker side: bullying, victimization and sexual harassment. Anglo-Saxon culture can be inhibited, and teasing is a disinhibited behavior, Keltner explains.

By contrast, in Mediterranean, African and Central American societies, which are much less restrained, teasing is just part of the drama played out in everyday social life.

Indeed, teasing occupies a fine and fleeting line between aggression and play. The aggressive aspect of it consists of criticism that threatens a person's "face," or desired social identity. But since the driving force behind teasing is a yearning to maintain harmonious social relationships, teasers engage in redressive action?they deploy humorous or playful tactics signaling that the criticism should not be taken as a condemnation. Exaggerated tone of voice, elongated vowels, unusual facial expressions, a little laugh just before or after the tease?a range of more or less subtle "paralinguistic" markers remind the teasee that they are loved despite the flaw?and maybe even more for it.

Teasing teaches us the elements of communication. It is fundamentally ambiguous, so it forces us to pay attention to all aspects of an interaction in order to decipher its meaning. Whether a tease lands as intended depends in part on the relationship between the teaser and teasee. When the powerful pick on the the weaker, the power differential obscures all the play in teasing. Similarly, when cold and unfriendly people tease anyone at all, their actions generate more anxiety, pain and embarrassment than amusement. The intention of the tease is called into question, and the game loses its balance?it becomes far more fun for the teaser than teasee. Still, whether teasing is done between lovers, friends, or parents and children, partners in play invariably wind up liking each other more, Keltner has found.

The more satisfied couples are with their relationship, the more playful their signs and signals: coy smiles, the sticking out of the tongue, laughter, bizarre facial expressions, unusual voice inflection and physical touching wrapped around the aggressive core of the tease. Both partners feel more positive emotion after poking fun, says Keltner. Indeed, what is flirtation but a series of teases?

But men and women may respond differently to this form of play: Women tend to get hurt by the pinch, while their partners become more aroused. "Men always find ambiguous social stimuli more sexually suggestive than women do," explains Keltner. "What's more, teasing has an affiliative component, which men interpret as a sign of sexual interest." It may be that men are just more used to teasing, as they tend to tease more throughout the course of life. At the same time, women seem to have a stronger emotional reaction to potentially hostile stimuli.

Nonetheless, the sexes cling to the same themes as they taunt, with women focusing on personal habits and sexual issues?especially their partner's sexual readiness and excessive desire?and men on their partner's physical characteristics.

Despite its potential for misuse, poking fun in fact oxygenates social life. As it is strategically ambiguous and based on the assumption that individuals are close enough to tease, it gives relationships breathing room?especially around potentially troublesome issues?while simultaneously deepening the intimacy of the relationship. Teasing's side effect?shared laughter?brings loved ones even closer.

Teasing allows us to:
  • Convey social standards and morals of a group.
  • Establish hierarchies and play out power differences; alternately, it can bring people down to our level.
  • Form bonds; the act of sharing laughter brings people closer.
  • Probe or feel the limits of a relationship or the dimensions of another's character. One can almost always pull back onto safe ground by saying "just teasing."
  • Manage conflicting or difficult emotions. For example, according to anthropologists, African-American children developed "sounding"?a ritualized and playful form of insult?as a tool to cope with hostility often lobbed at them in the larger culture.

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
The Art of the Tease
By Kathleen McGowan, Psychology Today
July/August 2006

Teasing is fun, but can often be misconstrued. How to tease the right way.

Teasing is risky, potentially devastating—and a lot of fun. A well-executed jab creates intimacy almost out of thin air, but when it's misguided or misinterpreted, it can destroy relationships. Teasing relies on a disconnect between words and nonverbal signals: We say something mean and simultaneously undercut it with body language and tone of voice. "Shirley's always on time, isn't she?" you rib a notoriously late coworker, smiling and looking slyly at her from the corner of your eye.

Since nonverbal communication is notoriously easy to misconstrue, teasers must proceed with special caution, finds Justin Kruger, a professor at the business school at New York University. In a recent study, he asked roommates and other acquaintances to tease each other, and found that those who were teased almost invariably felt more antagonized than the teasers intended. The recipient of the razz felt ridiculed rather than gently prodded. With that in mind, a few guidelines for successful teasing:
  • Choose your subject carefully. Being ribbed about something silly you did or said is much easier to take than being kidded about a basic trait like weight or appearance. Harass your friend for bragging, for mispronouncing words or for being unable to parallel park—not about his big nose or her hefty legs.
  • Tease up or across your social world, not down. Because teasing playfully punctures another person's sense of self, it is more wounding when directed at someone of lower status.
  • Beware the Gentler Sex. In the context of romance, women are more likely to feel insulted by teasing than are men, perhaps because guys are used to it: Young boys often express friendship through taunting and banter.
  • Exaggerate the tease. Go for absurdity, not subtlety. Exaggerating your body language and your words clarifies that you're just joking and makes it less likely that your intent will be misread.

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
He's Always "Just" Kidding
Mar/Apr 2006
By Hara Estroff Marano, Psychology Today

He's Always "Kidding"
Please suggest some ways I can become less sensitive to my husband's "jokes" and "just kidding" comments. I shrivel into a mass of hurt feelings and don't know how to recover quickly.

The important issue is whether he's hiding behind the cloak of "kidding" to tap a reservoir of nastiness. Does he tease others in other contexts? Perhaps it's just a style of being that he feels comfortable with. Either way, don't focus on becoming less sensitive. Join the game. The trick is to plan ahead and come up with a few good comebacks to deploy strategically when your husband unleashes one of his "just kidding" remarks. The fact is that teasing is always a sophisticated combination of aggression and play, and men especially value teasing; it is a way of bonding and connecting. For some it's a particularly strong part of their upbringing. Teasing (not to be confused with terrorizing or bullying) serves some valuable functions.

Try to understand that it's often a way of communicating affection—people don't tease with just anyone. Sure, teasing remarks sometimes feel more like guided missiles, but you just may find more excitement and closeness in playing the game than in playing victim. As you join in, don't aim to hurt your husband, just to play. After you demonstrate that you can get the banter going, no matter how edgy it is, then you might choose an affectionate moment to tell your husband that you enjoy playing with him but that some of his remarks cross the line. Be specific about which comments hurt and how they make you feel. Hopefully, hubby will cut back on the zingers, and you will grow closer through playful ribbing.
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