Teasing – Can’tcha Take a Joke?


You hear it on almost every TV sitcom. The funny insults are just part of the comedy. But it doesn’t work so well in real life.

People hurl insults back and forth being clever and joking. No one takes it seriously…, do they?

Teasing can be harmful to relationships when the words said in a funny way would be insults and put-downs if said seriously. Yet teasing is quite prevalent in our culture. Parents tease their children, kids tease each other, men joke with each other at work.

Teasing — we all do it from time to time; we’re all victims once in a while. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to bother us a bit. It can be funny, break the ice and lift a too serious mood. Sometimes, it really hurts and we remember the sting for a long time.

I used a new recipe and it came out looking strange. The dinner was filled with laughter but I never made that dish again and I hesitate before trying new things.

Teasing seems to snowball. It begins slowly and each person wants to top the other’s remark. The clever repartee picks up momentum and becomes an avalanche. I overheard two boys talking. First there was a small dig, “Is that your face, I thought it was a Halloween mask?” Then along came the bigger and better joke in retaliation. “Where were you when the brains were passed out, turkey, under the rug?” Two laughs later the hitting started and one complained, “I was only kidding, can’t you take a joke?”

The way the routine goes, if you object. then the other person puts you down for being a poor sport. It seems to make anything acceptable if we say, “I was only joking.” It’s like a license to kill. I have an image of someone sticking in a knife and saying, “Don’t bleed! I was just teasing.”

I asked the great psychologist, Carl Rogers, about the effects of teasing. He spoke at length about it. “Teasing was one of the major modes of communication in my family as a boy. You just had to develop a thick skin and give back as good as was sent. It wasn’t until I got married and found how hurt my wife was when I would just toss off some sarcastic teasing remark, that I realized what armor plate we’d had to develop to live in that kind of atmosphere. I quite agree that most teasing has an underlying objective of hurting.”

“I like humor, Rogers continued, “but that’s quite different from teasing. The motivation of most drastic teasing is to hurt and that hurts relationships. It would be much better brought out in the open. If I don’t like what you’ve done it would be better to say so in so many words than to tease you or insult you in some subtle way. Teasing can have different motives and usually they’re unconscious motives and that’s what’s too bad. If you are fully aware that you want to keep a person at a distance that’s OK, but if you are teasing in order to do that and not aware, that’s unfortunate.”

The effect of teasing is worse when a person’s self esteem is low and it’s very difficult to judge the level of someone’s self esteem. We all have hidden hot-spots, the sensitive places, that we don’t advertise and may not be aware of. Once I teased a coworker about some dumb thing he’d done and he got very quiet. I questioned him and found that my remark had bothered him. I thought he was smart, and that he knew that, but he didn’t think he was so intelligent.

Unless we become aware of the consequences, we may continue to think teasing is harmless. Watch what happens after you’ve been teased. Monitor your feelings a while later. Sometimes it takes time for the bad feelings to surface. I may react well at the time I’m teased, but later I find myself remembering the teasing and wondering about the intent; or I become blue and don’t know why.

I grew up in an atmosphere of teasing. My friends told me that I must learn to take a joke, lighten up, be able to laugh at myself. I tried. I decided that it must be a character fault, not being able to take being kidded, but I couldn’t overcome it. I asked my husband if he would please stop teasing me because I never could tell whether I could take it or whether I’d brood about what he said. He agreed to stop teasing me and I was surprised that it was less stressful and our whole relationship improved.

When I asked not to be teased, I thought I was the only weak, fragile person who couldn’t take it, but I found more and more people who didn’t like teasing either. I decided to quit teasing others. I was worried that life would become dull and conversations drab, but there are plenty of humorous moments in life. We can laugh a great deal without the risk of hurting others.

Teasing can interfere with the deepening of a relationship. When I know that someone teases, I have to guard what I say for fear I’ll give them an opportunity to “get” me. I can’t ever be sure that one of my goofs, weaknesses or vulnerabilities won’t become material for getting a laugh. That certainly cuts down on spontaneity and keeps our friendship at a superficial level.

What’s behind the teasing’? Why do we do it? A motive for teasing may be as simple as habit, or as complex as seeking power in a situation. A person who can make others laugh is the center of attention, while those being joked about are at the mercy of the teaser.

We tease others for a variety of reasons, some conscious and some unconscious. Sometimes we want to get a laugh, be funny, clever, stir things up and get a conversation from becoming dull. Occasionally, we’d like to get a message across without risk of confrontation. We can dig our spouse in front of company because there’s safety in the group. “Alice is such a bad cook that even the dog gets sick on the leftovers!”

Many resentments can be hidden in jokes. Virginia Satir world renowned family therapist and author says, “Teasing is often unacknowledged hostility. It is an attempt to avoid responsibility for being honest. Teasing is often an effort to disclaim the presence of hostility and in effect, everyone loses.”

Some people want to keep others from knowing them, from being close, and will use teasing as a smoke screen. The joker keeps the spotlight and no one ever hears about the problems and realities of his life.

Claude Steiner, a psychologist, says that teasing is brutal to children and a form of psychological abuse. It’s quite stressful for a child to be teased and lack the verbal ability to retaliate or be forbidden to do so.

Teasing, joking, and sarcasm, saying unkind things in a funny way, are accepted in our culture. It’s a way of giving attention to each other, but what a damaging and cruel attempt at humor. We can all learn to become aware of the effects of teasing. We can find more direct, more gentle ways of confronting each other and more appropriate ways to bring laughter into our lives. We can say to others, “1’m uncomfortable with the teasing.”

A poem I found that has an Ogden Nash flavor, sums up the whole irritating matter: “People need to be teased like a dog needs to have fleas.”


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