The art of humor and the importance of playful banter  

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Roaster Jeffrey Ross onstage during Comedy Central’s Roast of Joan Rivers at CBS Radford Studios on July 26, 2009 in Studio City, California. According to Venkateshwaran, friend groups where members of the group can not only “dish it out” but also take it back, are examples of the ultimate form of mutual friendship. Photo courtesy of: The Comedy Store on flickr.com

Humor is one of the most complex and giving phenomena of human nature and life. Despite its subjectivity, humor is a universal concept that has pervaded every culture since the dawn of civilization. Humor is a powerful tool when it comes to introducing a different perspective and can often help us see things for what they are. Whether humor assumes the form of wordplay, satire or dark comedy, one common thread always runs through it: honesty. The “truth-telling” component goes beyond mere entertainment, and this can be readily seen in social circles and our personal friendships.  

Since humor is so subjective, it plays a unique role in the dynamics of friendship and influences social interactions between people. Within some groups, not a single sentence uttered is to be taken seriously, and this dialogue may confuse an outside observer to no end. Without context clues like tone, word-choice, comedic timing and historical knowledge — such as inside jokes —, it would be impossible to follow these conversations. Contextual humor can play a pivotal role in determining group cohesion. The underlying mechanics of humor are deeply rooted in awareness and perception. What is funny to one group may strike others as tasteless, and being aware of how certain subject matters are perceived by each audience is critical to the flow of an interaction.  

Teasing is one particular form of humor that evokes strong emotional reactions in people and can often hold a negative connotation. Due to its highly personal nature, there’s a  delicate line between teasing and bullying. A playful punch to the arm can quickly escalate into a punch to the face; it all depends on the situation and each person’s takeaway on the implication of what was said, done or expressed. It’s important to be cognizant of who’s on the receiving end of your teasing and the depth of what you choose to joke about — who the person is, what their background is, what they have been through or how tender this aspect of their life experience is. If you don’t have this information, it’s better to first explore that more and get to know them better — you can always gradually test the waters with a light joke, gauge their reaction and slowly build a profile on what constitutes “good” or tasteful humor from that person’s perspective. In essence, the goal is to laugh with someone, not at them. 

The intentions behind teasing are not always negative. Some friend groups hurl insults at each other, constantly mocking certain aspects of each other and ridiculing their friends at every chance they get. Many would consider this as harmful behavior that promotes bullying. My hot take is that teasing can be … good. The spectrum of teasing is wide and varies in different friend groups, but a common feature is pointing out a friend’s unusual behavioral or physical characteristics. Now, it’s imperative to be extremely careful here, because making light of someone’s personal attributes may connect to something much deeper and potentially trigger trauma. In my experience, a joke about me can feel slightly uncomfortable, but sometimes, making fun of each other’s surface level flaws has oddly reframed my perspective on my insecurities. It’s shown me that, at the end of the day, the friends that I can make fun of, and vice versa, are the people who embrace me for who I am — despite my “flaws” or insecurities.  

Friend groups where members of the group can not only “dish it out” but also take it back, are examples of the ultimate form of mutual friendship. Friends who successfully take shots at each other are arguably closer than friend groups that uphold an unwavering standard of polite discourse.  The more niceties and sugar-coating you hear, the weaker the friendship — true friends tell it like it is. Avoiding the truth is just a testament to the insecurity of a friendship. The way I see it, the more banter your friend group has, the stronger the connection.  

Of course, this does not condone bullying in any manner — it is simply to illustrate the significance of humor and how it contributes to establishing deeper social connections. Bullying is when you’ve crossed a line, and it is important to be highly aware of when and what kind of humor is appropriate. Humor is nuanced, and mastering the art of teasing is a skill that must be practiced in a safe space with trusted friends.  

The most critical aspect of successful banter is dependent on boundary-setting. Establishing clear boundaries within friendships is the key to comfortably poking fun at a friend, especially if you don’t know them very well. But even if you are close, it’s essential to draw a solid line between the topics that are up for discussion versus definitively off the table. For example, you can outright vocalize, for example: “The engagement party incident of 2009 is off-limits in terms of joke territory. Otherwise, you’ve got free reign on the rest of my family’s notorious scandals.”  

If you don’t feel comfortable making such a strong statement out of nowhere, another opportunity to set boundaries is to just shut a joke down on the spot. There are many subtle phrases you can use to express this, such as a simple, “That’s in the past and I’d like to leave it there,” or a curt, “Not cool man … drop it.” Ideally, you should abstain from elaborating — you should never have to explain yourself or why a boundary is a boundary. However, if it’s appropriate and you feel comfortable providing more context, I highly recommend doing so. As I’ve established, humor is highly contextual, and it’s up to you to communicate to your friends what you do and do not find funny.  

Banter is an unmatched mode of bonding and is a quick and easy way to express your thoughts, opinions and feelings in a friendship. I urge people to consider gradually connecting with their friends on a deeper level and building relationships to a level that allows friendly teasing. Cultivating a culture of respectful and playful banter into friendship can be a game-changer for anyone’s social life. So go out there, tease your friends and together you can laugh your worries away! 

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