Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

Teasing and Bullying, Boys and Girls

Unlike bullying, victims help determine the meaning of teasing.

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Biff and George

Something is missing from the recent news stories focusing on bullying in our schools, teen suicide, and the words of support spoken by celebrities, politicians, and athletes in the It Gets Better  campaign.

A definition of ‘bullying’. 

Partly, I think that’s because – like many psychological constructs – people think they know bullying when they see it.   Just as we naturally judge those around us as intelligent or insecure or we judge ourselves to be in love or angry, the meaning of what it means to be bullied seems – and more importantly, feels - obvious.  It hurts.*

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The B Word

Bullying seems to be on the rise in American culture. If schoolyards are the stomping grounds of young bullies, offices are the playground of grown ones.

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However, if one is studying bullying as a scientific psychologist, bullying needs to be defined clearly so we can distinguish between different types of bullying – physical v. emotional, for example – track how it changes over time, and learn more about who is likely to be victimized, who is likely to bully, how to protect victims, and how to stop perpetrators.  Sometimes the precision that scientists try to bring to emotional or social phenomenon may seem misplaced.  But it’s important.  Without a clear definition, the many assertions that bullying is becoming more pervasive, that girls are becoming meaner and more likely to bully, or that the internet is making things worse simply can’t be evaluated.

Bullying v. Teasing

One basic distinction often made in the literature on peer-on-peer aggression is  between bullying  and teasing.  Bullying is an overt act of aggression, whose intention is to harm the victim.  Motivations for bullying vary, from the nasty pleasure of asserting power over someone who is weaker or helpless to trying to increase one’s own status.  The literature on bullying makes three things clear. 

  • First, a minority of adolescents overtly bully others – it isn’t something that most kids do.  Too many kids, yes (estimates vary by method and context).  Most kids, no. 
  • Second, many bullies are low status and both bully others and are victimized themselves. 
  • Third, and probably most disturbingly, most kids will stand by and watch a bully harass and hurt one of their peers without stepping in and stopping it.  Moreover, they often make it worse by acting as an audience – or even laughing.  All the estimates I have read that say that almost 75% of all children “bully” have classified kids who watch or laugh when someone else hurts a peer as being the same as perpetrators. 

Teasing, as the word is usually used by people who study peer interactions, is different from bullying, at least from the perspective of the perpetrator. 

Let me say that again.  FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE PERPETRATOR and of an outside observer, teasing is different from bullying.  From the perspective of the victim, this distinction may be unimportant.  Teasing can also turn into bullying.  But the distinction between bullying and teasing is important, because the way teasing and the way bullying work socially are very different. 

If we want to understand peer-on-peer aggression, it’s important to keep that distinction clear. Two keep facts:

  • Teasing is an AMBIGUOUS social exchange that can be friendly, neutral, or negative.
  • How a teasing interchange proceeds really depends upon how the person BEING TEASED reacts. 

For example, if a girl walks into the cafeteria with a boy and a classmate says “OOO!  Carmen’s got a BOYfriend!”, it’s probably teasing. 

Carmen could smile, laugh, and say it’s true.  Then it might turn into a cheerful discussion. 

She could blush and deny it, it which case the other girls might laugh and more teasing might ensue or it could be dropped. 

Or she could get angry and treat the remark as if it were hostile, in which case the next remark would almost definitely be more overtly hostile and negative. 

Or, Carmen might just laugh, shake her head, ask the teaser if she’s jealous, and never address the question at all.

Bullying doesn’t work that way.   Because the intention of bullying – including verbal harassment or aggression – is to hurt the victim, their reaction doesn’t determine the meaning of the bully’s action.  It is overtly hostile and almost nothing the victim does will change that.

The meaning of teasing depends on how the person being teased responds.  If the teased laughs, it’s a joke.  If they take it seriously, it’s serious.  If they take it as an insult, it is and the next interaction proceeds accordingly.  Even youth who are often targeted by their peers – like students with developmental disabilities – are less likely to be teased or bullied over time if they respond to teasing as if it were a joke.

Think of your classic Clint Eastwood movie, where he comes into a bar and one of the locals makes an aggressive statement disguised as a ‘funny’ remark.  Clint responds AS IF the remark were a joke (i.e., as if he is being teased, not threatened).  If the onlookers laugh, the aggressor can either back down and act as if he was joking (i.e., teasing) or he can turn the exchange into a straight confrontation by making another overtly aggressive remark.  Failing to accept Clint’s suggestion that the meaning of the initial remark was not serious (i.e., accept Clint’s interpretation of the remark as teasing and non-aggressive) turns what Clint is saying is teasing into an attempt to bully.  The interpretation of bullying is unambiguously hostile and will be treated as a challenge. 

George McFly in Back To the Future

In Back To the Future, you see an even more unambiguous example.  Michael J. Fox plays the hero, Marty McFly, who travels to the past and meets his parents when they were in high school.  In one painful exchange in the town malt shop, Marty’s father (George McFly) tries to treat an overt act of bullying by the villain, Biff, as if it were a joke (i.e., as if it were a non-hostile exchange – teasing).  Biff’s refusal to accept George’s interpretation is what makes you know that George is being victimized.  The insults are not jokes.  George is being insulted and abused.  One of the high points of the movie is when George finally stands up to the bully. 

That malt shop scene, where George tries to pass off insults as a joke and Biff refuses to let him, is important in the movie's plot.  A hallmark of male-to-male adolescent friendship is the ability to exchange insults (i.e. to tease) without either person taking offense or getting mad.  George McFly is trying to show that he and Biff are friends by not taking offense and passing threats off as a joke.  Biff doesn’t let him, showing they AREN’T friends and that he is the person in control.  Biff’s a bully – this is not an ambiguous exchange.

Boys and Girls

Classic observational research by Ritch Savin-Williams and by Donna Eder suggests that teasing tends to work differently for adolescent boys and girls.  Among boys, teasing tends to establish a fairly strict and stable hierarchy – who’s one top, who gets listened to, who makes decisions.  Teasing includes small insults, physical bumps and pushes, and minor insults.  When a new group of boys meets – as when everyone gets assigned to a new gym class or camp cabin – teasing is intense.  Physical size, pubertal status, verbal ability, and attractiveness all determine who is on top in the status hierarchy.  Interestingly, being liked isn’t the same as having high status.  Lots of boys who other kids like never get listened to and are often the butt of jokes.  And those low status boys get reminded of their place in the pecking order A LOT in the first few days.  Teasing is intense.  On the other hand, things establish themselves quickly – in just a few days – and, as soon as they do, the teasing drops down to a low, stable level. 

It doesn’t work that way for girls.  Girls’ status hierarchies are much more unstable that are boys’.  Girls tend to form triarchic friendships, which change, and thus who is on top changes as well.  In addition to teasing, slights, and petty remarks, girls’ status hierarchies are established by asking favors – high status girls impose on lower status ones – and giving compliments – low status girls compliment higher status ones.  Girls aggression is typically less physical and more subtle – sneaky – than the aggression of boys.

Boys attack when the person teased shows weakness. 

Teasing functions differently as well.  Boys tease to establish a hierarchy.  And boys can be brutal.  A boy is teased about his pants being too short.  He responds with a laugh and it’s over.  The ability of boys to exchange insults and tease each other with no one getting mad is a critical sign that boys are real friends.  But if the person teased responds by getting angry and looking upset, and the other boy will intensify the attack immediately.  The more upset he gets, the more and the harsher the teasing.  The ‘teaser’ wins when the boy being teased loses his temper or loses his cool.  And if it happens chronically, this can absolutely turn into harassment and bullying.

Girls diffuse tension within the clique.  "Just teasing." 

Girls tease to establish and enforce social norms.  ‘Your pants are too short.’  ‘Ooo, you decided to dress as a slut for Halloween?’  ‘Was there a wind tunnel in the hallway or did you decide to go for that just rolled out of bed look?’  The message is clear – you aren’t acting the way you’re supposed to.  As with boys, a laugh or a rueful acknowledgement will probably let the topic drop (if it really is teasing and not straight aggression).  But, unlike boys, in typical female-on-female teasing, getting upset doesn’t usually intensify teasing.  If the girl being teased looks obviously upset the cutting remark, the typical response is that most hated of remarks. 

“Just teasing!” 

What does ‘just teasing’ mean?  It was all a joke.  I didn’t mean to hurt you.  It might be true, but . . . In other words, this isn’t serious and I don't really hate you. 

Because girls’ hierarchy’s tend to be much more unstable than the hierarchy or boys, high status girls will often damp down teasing of other girls WITHIN THE SAME CLIQUE.  Why?  Because if someone gets upset, the power dynamics within the clique might change, and the high status girl may find herself in the middle – even at the bottom – of the new order. 

What this means is that girls tend to experience a constant, lower level of teasing.  Unlike teasing among boys, which starts high and then drops, teasing among girls starts mid-range and just stays there.

Choose your poison. 

© 2010 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved

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* I'm not sure kids actually ARE good at knowing bullying when they see it.  I remember a friend of my eldest son telling me how a kid on the bus forced him to put on makeup and harassed him mercilessly for the whole bus ride home.  He felt humiliated and angry.  The school was in the midst of an anti-bullying campaign and I pointed that out.  He looked at me.  "OH!  It never occurred to me that he was bullying me."

My initial thoughts for this article came from reading friends and relatives talk about their experiences of being harassed in school and saying they never realized at the time that the people harassing them were bullies.  They just thought of them as 'mean kids'.  A bully was someone who beat you up and demanded lunch money. 

Definitions are important.

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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