How to Poke Fun

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.

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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.

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