Television channel Dave refers to itself as ‘Home of witty banter’. Radio presenters often refer to discussions between presenters and producers as ‘banter’. But has it become a euphemism for bullying?

A supply teacher was recently fired for banning the word ‘banter’ in his classroom. Students were picking on other classmates then justifying their behaviour by saying, ‘It’s just banter,’ as if that justifies their behaviour somehow.

It doesn’t.

I don’t think bullying will ever be fully eradicated. There are too many instances where people don’t realise that they’re being bullied for it to disappear completely. Call me pessimistic if you will, but as someone who’s been on both sides, the psychology of it is much too complicated for it to disappear without treating adults that encourage it (yes, I am saying some parents encourage it, or in the very least encourage it by not discouraging it), and do the same thing in the workplace.

Banter is defined as ‘an exchange of light, playful, teasing remarks’. For banter to work, the two people engaging in it must know each other well enough to not take things personally. This is why radio is a good example—presenters and producers play pranks on each other, but they’re still friends because they know that it’s a joke, they know not to take it personally and that the only underlying motive is to entertain their listeners (and sometimes viewers).

Has banter become a euphemism for bullying?

Likewise comedians on panel shows are there to entertain. Their discussions aren’t there to target each other, but to make their audience laugh. Sometimes this involves making fun of each other, sometimes it involves making fun of themselves, and most of the time it involves making fun of politicians and attention-seeking celebrities.

The lines begin to blur when ‘banter’ is used in the classroom. If someone’s not your friend, and you make a joke at their expense, is it banter? Going by the definition above, no, it isn’t. It refers to banter as an ‘exchange’: it goes back and forth between the people involved. If you steal someone’s pencil case and justify it as banter, you’re using it as a euphemism for bullying.

Bullies target those that they deem weaker than themselves to make themselves feel stronger, more empowered. That’s the biggest difference between bullying and banter—banter is playful remarks between friends (or at least colleagues/acquaintances), whilst bullying is used as a way to establish a hierarchy.

If you have to finish your remark/action by asking the person on the receiving end something like, ‘You don’t mind, do you Norman?’ chances are you’re being a bully. Not only that, but the question comes across as more of an order than a question. If Norman were to respond and say that yes, he does mind, he would be rebelling against the person holding the power, and a power struggle would ensue. If Norman replies that no he doesn’t, he’s much more likely to be targeted again. He’s stuck.

Perhaps the rise in popularity of stand-up comedy is to blame. In the same way that blogging makes everyone think they can be a writer, perhaps exposing people to more stand-up comedy makes everyone think that they can be funny, too. Not only that, but that they can be offensively funny and get away with it.

It doesn’t work like that.

If you want to be offensively funny, save it for your closest friends with the same black or blue sense of humour as you. As soon as you start making jokes at other people’s expense without their permission, you become a bully. You’re even more likely to be perceived as a bully if the people take those remarks personally, and you never know who will.

If you have to finish your remark/action by asking the person on the receiving end something like, ‘You don’t mind, do you Norman?’ chances are you’re being a bully. Not only that, but the question comes across as more of an order than a question.

I’m not saying we should drown in political correctness, but we should be mindful of what we say. We’re not all comedians and we’re not all wordsmiths. It’s how you say something that spells out your intent—the tone, wording and body language—over what you actually mean. This is often forgotten and is where things can get misinterpreted, turning into arguments.

It’s important to be ourselves, but we should be a courteous version of ourselves, especially in the workplace and around people we don’t know as well as family and close friends. There’s a difference in the way that we should treat a peer or work colleague compared to a best friend.

The thing with banter is that it comes naturally. It often happens between close friends and can be those kinds of moments that you wish were filmed because they’re just so funny. They don’t happen as often in real life as the TV would have us all believe, but they do occur occasionally—I’ve had quite a few. That’s what happens when you put writers in a room together.

If you have to ask yourself if what you’ve just said (or are thinking of saying) is banter or bullying, you already know the answer.

What do you think? Have you heard banter used as a euphemism for bullying?