Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Teasing: Another Spectrum

Originally posted on August 8, 2015

Teasing can range from mild joshing to outright sadism, really nasty mean. The other extreme has nothing indirect,  just people being kind, tactful, appreciative. There’s a good deal of communication that’s in-between.

Some people feel anxious about being perceived as being “soft” by others. Others are are coarser: they interact by introducing an an edge to their behavior. This ranges from subtle cruelty that’s explained away as “just kidding” to what lots of people do, joshing, teasing. Now some folks enjoy this kind of play because it offers them an opportunity to tease back, sometimes rather strongly. “Hey! Can’t you take it?”

In fact, though, many people can not “take it,” can not interpret such styles of communication as defensive and basically friendly.  Instead, they get “hurt” by comments that others might well either brush off or respond to spiritedly. Alas, most of this transaction happens unconsciously.

Since there’s little discussion about this, I thought I’d mention it: These people can’t brush it off. Their nervous systems are indeed “too” sensitive” relative to the mass, but they can’t help it. It’s a matter of temperament, and it’s unconscious.

Higher status people, kings, will have them cut your head off for what you thought was making a little joke. Lesser status people up to now “took” it and indeed, felt ashamed of their own being hurt. But now they’re more empowered to resent it and answer back. Don’t think they didn’t respond with sullen acceptance in the past. What’s called “passive-aggressive” is in part feeling trapped and subjected to the aggressions of others more powerful. It is psychological oppression to feel powerless, and often it’s quite realistic! You don’t “answer back” to slave-masters or elders.

Teasing generally proceeds from the more-powerful socially, or more secure, to the perceived less-powerful. A common underlying assumption is the pretense that we’re all equal, but we’re not. Some folks who are equal feel one down. Some folks who are even slightly one-up are vulnerable to put-downs. Others respond strongly enough that those who started it shut up. People are exquisitely psychologically sensitive to status, put downs, unconscious struggles for dominance, sensitivity to what might be disrespect from others, insensitive to their own put-downs.

As our culture becomes more psychologically-minded, aided by “sensitivity training,” “encounter groups” cross-cultural awareness training and other forms of consciousness-raising, such transactions rise from the truly unconscious into explicit awareness: “Sure, I called him a ‘kike,” a very nice lady in the Southern USA might have said a half-century ago, truly meaning no harm. “That’s what he is, isn’t he?” She might have had no idea that some of the everyday language of her culture was demeaning.

So, as culture becomes more psychologically minded, people see through the cruel edge of teasing. And as people become more civilized and accustomed to being treated with courtesy, they find themselves losing patience with edgy people from a half-generation to two generations back for whom teasing was just the way things were. Sexual harassment too. It was “just” kidding, or so folks thought. Intellec-tuals called it “banter.” Nowadays, most would recognize it as disrespectful.

So that’s yet another way culture is changing. Some hold-outs might complain, “Folks are so sensitive nowadays!” Others would respond, “Folks are finally beginning to get it.”

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