What exactly is teasing, and what are its purposes?
Teasing gets a bad rap, especially in educational circles, because of its association with bullying. But not all teasing is bullying. In fact, in most settings (maybe not in our typical schools), teasing serves positive ends far more often than negative ones. This essay is mostly about the positive uses of teasing.
Definition of teasing
What is teasing? I like the definition given by Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at UC Berkeley who is perhaps the world’s leading researcher on the topic. According to Keltner, a tease is “an intentional provocation accompanied by playful off-record markers that together comment on something relevant to the target.” Let me break that down.
A tease, as the term is used by Keltner and his colleagues, has these three characteristics: (1) It is a verbal statement or nonverbal action that is designed deliberately to provoke another person (the target of the tease). (2) The statement or action is accompanied by or followed by one or more markers indicating that it is playful or at least is not fully serious. For example, it might be marked by laughter or smiling, a singsong voice, unusual phrasing, obvious exaggeration, or irony (saying the opposite of what is meant). (3) It draws attention to, or comments on, something relevant to the target. For example, it may comment on some aspect of the target’s personality, or physical being, or current emotional or motivational state.
A tease can be purely nonverbal. For example, a parent might tease a young child by pretending to offer him a piece of candy and then laughing and taking it away; the comment here is on the child’s strong desire for candy. (To most of us, this example seems mean; but in some cultures teasing of this sort is used to deliberately train children in self-control.) In an analogous manner, a woman might tease a man by acting as if she is sexually available and then making it clear she is not. Even a poke in the ribs, or an eye blink, appropriately timed to follow a faux pas on the part of the target, can be a tease. But the teases I’m concerned with here are primarily verbal.
Teasing as an expression of acceptance
My family members and closest friends, especially my wife, are well aware of my many flaws and don’t hesitate to tease me about them. They know, for example, that I can’t carry a tune, am often absent-minded, am uncomfortable at parties, am ignorant of much of popular culture, get too serious when playing games that should be just for fun (an obvious flaw in someone who writes about the non-competitive nature of play), and am far more frugal than necessity demands. By teasing me about these things they show me that these elements of my character are out in the open; I don’t have to try to hide them. The people I care most about already know these things about me, find them amusing, and accept me despite the flaws. To know someone well is to know their weaknesses as well as strengths, and teasing can be a playful way of expressing that knowledge and thereby reinforcing the friendship. The flaws, to the real friend, can even be endearing, as long as they’re not too egregious.
Teasing as a means of promoting humility
But teasing also serves purposes beyond acceptance. One of its primary functions is that of deflating egos.
It’s human nature to be repelled by arrogance. Arrogant people are threats to all of us because they think they are better than us, think they have a right to impose their will on us, and may even think that our purpose on earth is to serve them. Arrogance is a flaw that is not endearing, and if we want to be true friends with a person who tends even slightly toward arrogance, we must do what we can to punch holes in that person’s ego. We all, at times, have the potential of becoming a bit too arrogant, and teasing by others can help us overcome that tendency.
When my friends and loved ones tease me about my flaws, they are not only expressing acceptance of those flaws, but are also reminding me of them. In doing so, they are keeping me humble. When either my wife or I concede that the other was right, on something about which we had disagreed, we often do so with a playful, “Oh, you’re such a smarty-pants.” It’s a tease, common to children, which means, “OK, you’re right; but don’t get all arrogant just because you knew something that I didn’t know.”
The world’s superstars at the use of teasing to promote humility are hunter-gatherers. As I have explained in previous essays (here and here), the hunting-and-gathering way of life requires continuous cooperation, sharing, and an egalitarian spirit. Hunter-gatherers do not have “big men” or chiefs, but make all group decisions democratically, through discussions aimed at achieving consensus. They recognize that the human tendency toward arrogance is a threat to their means of existence, and they are constantly on guard to nip it in the bud. They are particularly vigilant about arrogance in young men.
For example, hunter-gatherers everywhere engage in a practice that anthropologists refer to as “insulting the meat.” When a hunter brings a fat antelope or other prize kill back to the band, for everyone to share, he must act humbly about it. He must say that the animal is skinny, hardly worth bothering with. He must say that he killed it through sheer luck, or because of the fine arrow that someone else had made and lent him, or because it was sickly and an easy mark, or all of these things. If he acts even the slightest bit arrogant about his hunting, others will mock both him and the meat he has brought them. The men and women alike, especially the grandmothers, will complain that the antelope is nothing but a bag of bones and hardly worth cooking. They might make up a song about the man’s flaws and about how he thinks he is such a “great hunter” but is really a puny weakling. They might mockingly call him “chief” or “big man.” In a culture that doesn’t have chiefs or big men and values equality, this is one of the greatest insults that can be hurled.
The man who is insulted in this way knows what is happening, but the insults nevertheless work. He knows that he has crossed a line that hunter-gatherers must not cross, and he must immediately make amends by expressing great humility about the meat and himself. He must join the others now in taunting himself. If he doesn’t, he knows that the taunting will escalate and might even lead to ostracism or banishment from the band. Such taunting is a form of teasing. It has all the elements of teasing, including humor. But it is teasing with a very serious purpose.
When anthropologist Richard Lee asked a wise healer in the hunter-gatherer group he was studying to explain this practice of insulting the meat, the healer replied: "When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his inferiors. We can't accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle."
Research in our culture shows that over the past two or three decades in North America there has been a continuous rise in narcissism, which might be defined as a pathological form of arrogance. I can’t help but wonder: Might the rise of narcissism be partly caused by a decline in teasing, especially teasing of children by parents and other adults? The self-esteem movement of the past two or three decades has been accompanied by the view that all sorts of put-downs of children are harmful, because they damage self-esteem. Well, maybe that’s what the put-downs were designed to do—damage the sort of “self-esteem” that manifests itself as arrogance or narcissism. Pacific Islanders and Asians generally value humility more than do Westerners, and they are also more likely than Westerners to tease their children, often in ways that strike Westerners as mean or insensitive.
Teasing as a means of correction and social control
Teasing can be a gentle, not so gentle, or even harsh way of encouraging others to change their behavior. Teasing to counteract arrogance is an example of this, but there are many other examples. Children, especially teenagers, tease one another regularly in their play as a means of social control. For example, in a friendly pick-up game of baseball, a pitcher who throws the ball too hard for a little kid to hit it might be told by a teammate, “Hey, way to go; it’s always good to strike out the little ones,” in a teasing voice that lets the pitcher know that the real meaning is the opposite. This is a way of offering criticism that does not destroy the spirit of play, does not have to be acknowledged as criticism, but yet is criticism and lets the target know that he has crossed a line he shouldn’t have crossed. It gives the criticized person a way of saving face. For example, he might respond by saying something like, “Yeah, you’re right, I’m really going to be tough on the little ones,” thereby pretending that his hard pitching was itself a teasing form of play; but then he can change his ways and start pitching more softly.
According to anthropologists’ reports, hunter-gatherers use such teasing regularly as a means of maintaining peace and harmony in the band. Hunter-gatherers refrain from criticizing others directly, because they believe that people should make their own decisions and not be told what to do or not do. Instead, they criticize indirectly, often through teasing. For example, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas described a case in which two women in the Ju/’hoan band that she was observing argued regularly and loudly with one another, disturbing the whole band, until others in the band made up a song about them and began to sing it whenever they started arguing. The song made them feel ashamed, and they stopped arguing. Shame is not always a bad emotion!
Teasing of this sort is not only more acceptable than direct criticism, given hunter-gatherer mores, but may also be more effective, even for us Westerners. Direct criticism tends to provoke argument and defensiveness. In contrast, teasing acts at an emotional level that bypasses our verbal defensiveness, and it gives us a choice of how to respond. We can laugh along with the teasers, thereby acknowledging that the implied criticism is justified. We can feel and express shame, likewise indicating our intent to change. We can stew for a while in resentment, but then eventually come around. Or we can leave, quietly or noisily, and henceforth avoid, when possible, this group of people who don’t like the way we behave.
As Keltner and his colleagues point out, the “comment” in teasing is most often about some non-normative characteristic or behavior of the target. When that non-normative thing is something that the person can’t change or shouldn’t feel compelled to change and the teasing is harsh, then it is proper to think of the teasing as bullying. But if the teasing is about something that the person can change and should change—for his own good or for the good of others—then it may serve a very useful purpose. Teasing a young man about the odor of his cigarette breath or about how he thinks he looks so cool when he’s smoking may be harsh, but it may be more effective than either direct command or reasoned argument in changing his behavior and prolonging his life. This is especially true if the teaser happens to be a potential girlfriend.
Teasing as a test of social relationship
Teasing can be a sign of affection, a constructive form of criticism, or a cruel put-down. It can also be a semi-competitive verbal game, in which the players are testing one another’s abilities to keep cool in response to provocation and provide clever responses, as in the classic case of inner city kids teasing one another about how fat or how sexually promiscuous (or both) the other’s momma is. (“Yo momma’s so fat only mountain climbers can have sex with her.”)
Sometimes the intent of a tease is ambiguous even in the mind of the teaser, but is shaped by the way the target and/or audience respond. In an article on teasing in a working-class community in South Baltimore, Peggy Miller gives a nice example. A high-school girl was taunted, in singsong fashion, by other kids in the lunchroom about the fact that she was on the free lunch program (a sign of poverty). The taunt might have been an instance of cruel bullying and ostracism, as happens altogether too often in our schools (see post here), or it might have been a verbal challenge, a test of the girl’s cool. It was probably, in the minds of the teasers (if they thought about it at all), a bit of both. The girl chose to treat it as a challenge. She retorted with something like this (I don’t have the exact words in front of me): “Hey, you all just jealous ‘cause I get something free and you don’t. Hmmm, this is sooo good. Just look at this jello! I hope you all are enjoying the stale boloney your mommas packed for you.” Even the lunch ladies laughed. Through her response, she turned the tormenters’ intended put-down into a game in which she won and thereby elevated, rather than reduced, her status.
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 Keltner, D., Capps, L., Kring, A. M., Young, R. C., & Heerey, E. A. (2001). Just teasing: A conceptual analysis and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 127, 229-248.
 Gray, P. (2009). Play as the foundation for hunter-gatherer social existence. American Journal of Play, 1, 476-522.
 Lee, R. B. (2003). The Dobe Ju/’hoansi, 3rd edition.
 Gray, P. (2011). The decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in childhood and adolescence. American Journal of Play, 3, 443-463.
 Schieffelin. B. B. (1986). Teasing and shaming in Kaluli children’s interactions. pp 165-181; in B. B. Schieffelin & Elinor Ochs (Eds.), Language socialization across cultures. Cambridge University Press. Also: B. Campos, D. Keltner, J. M. Beck, G. C. Gonzaga, & O. P. John (2007). Culture and teasing: The relational benefits of reduced desire for positive self-differentiation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 3-16.
 Miller, P. (1986). Teasing as language socialization and verbal play in a white working-class community; in B. B. Schieffelin & Elinor Ochs (Eds.), Language socialization across cultures. Cambridge University Press.