Are you a bully? Signs your banter is going too far

Banter has a place at work. It helps social cohesion. When we take it too far, it becomes bullying.

Are you a bully? Signs your banter is going too far

Banter has a place at work. It helps social cohesion. When we take it too far, it becomes bullying. Banter is a necessary part of work-life. It involves teasing, builds social cohesion and friendship. But when it turns into bullying, it becomes destructive. Here are the signs to watch out for. 

When banter becomes bullying

Such repartee has a purpose in work and life. Helping colleagues to bond. It can facilitate organisational culture and release tension, e.g. after a crisis. It is a friendly way to make fun of another, used by a closed group who understands the social rules of what is acceptable. People know the suitable topics and there is no intention to hurt or assert power. 

Most of us will use banter in our conversations. But when we misuse it, then it becomes bullying and harassment. This can occur when we feel the need to assert our power all the time or feel insecure. Then our wit becomes much more than sarcastic and can be hurtful. We could choose to target someone and make persistent derogatory comments about one of their characteristics, ‘Your dress size must be huge.’ We can repeat these things even if they are not true. Because the person makes us feel inadequate, perhaps by their competence. 

The effect of our words depends on our intention and how the person receives them. And we can intend to hurt. Alternatively, what we say can end up distressing the recipient even if we did not mean to upset. In either case, what is crucial is how the recipient understands what we have uttered. 

We can carry on using banter as a bullying strategy. Very few people, who are the targets, will respond and ask us to stop. They often feel that saying something will make the situation worse. Some of us will take this as reinforcement to carry on or interpret the other person as weak, and so continue teasing. 

We may not be sensitive to others and choose to ignore their needs. We could be discriminatory against a group but mask it as humour. The culture in which we work may well facilitate these behaviours as sometimes found in cricket and football. 

These days, it is difficult to determine what is acceptable to say. We can offend, sometimes without knowing it. Especially if it is a multi-cultural context, e.g. asking someone who was born in England where they come from. If confronted, we may say, “I was only joking.” “I’m sure she does not mind.” Neither of which are true. It is also not acceptable to utter a common derogatory term even if the person uses it. They may have felt that they had to, so that they fitted in. 


Stop and think about what you have said at work in the last six months. Consider the impact of what you verbalised, even in jest. Remember how other people responded verbally and non-verbally. How offended were they? Is there someone who avoids you? How sensitive were you to other people’s reactions?a

If needed, plan to change what you say. Think about how you could use banter more aptly, so it has a positive impact. Laughter and fun are very important parts of our work life. 

Anna Eliatamby
Anna Eliatamby

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