Why You Don't Like Being Teased

Teasers believe their comments are less hurtful than they really are.

Posted Apr 12, 2011

I tend to avoid people who favor barbed, teasing modes of interacting, even when I know they’re well-meaning. Not only do their teases feel hurtful, but I’m not good at the snappy come-backs that teasing seems to call for. I find myself smiling as a way to cover up my hurt feelings (not an unusual reaction – this is one of smiling’s primary functions.)

I'm probably on the thin-skinned end of the spectrum. But Gretchen Rubin over at the Happiness Project has uncovered fascinating new research that suggests that my feelings about teasing are pretty common: teasers tend to believe that their comments are less hurtful than the teasee thinks.

Here’s the research that she cites from David Dunning’s book, Self-Insight: Road Blocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself:

"People commonly tease each other, but it appears that people who are teased misunderstand the intentions of the person doing the teasing. Often, teasing is done in a spirit of affection and playfulness, and teasers attempt to convey these intentions through subtle nonverbal cues. However, those who are being teased tend to miss these benign aims. When they describe a time they teased their roommate, people tend to describe the action as more humorous and lighthearted than does the person being teased, who instead rates such incidents as more malicious and annoying. The good intentions of teasers are just not as obvious as teasers believe.” (Kruger, Gordon, Kuban) (page 129).

Gretchen also gives the example of a loving mother she knows who said to her daughter, “Hey, Messy Girl, are you planning to drag a brush through that rat’s nest on your head?” She knew the mother’s intentions were benign, but felt that she’d have been hurt if her mother said something like that to her.

This got me thinking about when teasing really is OK. For example, I sometimes call my three year old “Buster.” It’s an affectionate nickname, and he knows it. “Call me Buster again!” he sometimes tells me. Now when his friends come over they ask if I can call them Buster too.

Maybe the question is whether there’s anything passive-aggressive going on under the tease. The Messy Girl’s mother was using teasing to get her daughter to be cleaner. Some people use teasing to establish dominance – when I was in college, I noticed that guys did this with each other all the time. They seemed to find these back-and-forths hilarious, even when they were on the receiving end of the tease. But now I wonder what they were really feeling. (Any college guys out there, current or former? What do you think?)

And what do you all think about teasing in general?

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