Banter: Does it do more harm than good?

One of the many potential benefits of therapy is having the space to look at who we are, what we do and whether it’s working for us. We can explore each aspect of ourselves brick by brick, put it back if it serves us and decide what we might do differently if it doesn’t. This is particularly important because almost everything we do - from our internal dialogue to how we relate to others - happens without us even thinking about it.

Add to this the fact that most of who we are is also imprinted on us ‘outward-in’ during childhood; whether it was caregivers, teachers or the media, these ‘others’ showed us how to think, feel and behave so we could fit with our environment. This ‘outward-inness’ can be great for survival during those early years but isn’t necessarily always best for our psychological well-being as we go through life.

Banter is one of those behaviours we learn from our environment - you’ll notice there are no baby ‘bantasaurus’ in existence.

Having ‘good banter’ seems aspirational, even venerated, particularly amongst younger people and men.

Banter is the ‘playful and friendly mutual exchange of teasing remarks’, with ‘teasing’ remarks being ones that, again, ‘playfully’ make fun of someone. Words like ‘playful’, ‘friendly’, ‘exchange’, ‘mutual’ and ‘fun’ certainly make banter sound like helpful behaviour because they suggest connection. Anything that establishes and maintains connected relationships with ourselves and others is obviously going to be good for our well-being.

How do we connect with others?

Before looking at the potential reality of banter, let’s look more at connection in the context of compassion-focused therapy (CFT).

This identifies three main systems in all of us:

  1. The problem-focused ‘threat’ survival system that takes care of our safety need.
  2. The ‘drive’ or ‘reward’ system containing our innate drives to eat, have sex and acquire more stuff, status and money and compete with others.
  3. The ‘contentment’, or ‘affiliative’ system, which you might call ‘connection’, where love, friendship and attachment all sit.

Although all of these systems are essential for us to some degree, threat is the place of uncomfortable feelings like anger, fear and shame. Reward only ever provides short-term highs followed by dissatisfaction and yearning. If you’re looking for an ongoing, consistent sense of well-being, this only sits in connection - the place of empathy for and validation of ourselves and others, and of gratitude.

With all this going for it, you might wonder why we don’t spend most of our time in connection? But, we’re actually programmed to survive rather than to be happy. Therefore, we’ll spend most of our time in threat, usually closely followed by reward. Unless we actively do something different, we’re unfortunately destined to struggle in this way.

Looking at banter again, although the definition suggests it’s about connection, it actually involves finding a flaw and amplifying it. This is threat’s way of operating, rather than connection. If you also look at banter’s ‘sparring’ as a form of competition, again, this is reward rather than connection. Always occupying our competitive reward part with others means always either being better or less than another, never in connection with them.

The point here is relationships only really feel good when we’re mainly in connection within them. Of course, this isn’t going to be possible all the time. But, if we’re in connection, we’ll mostly be grounding the worth and value of other people to us, not pointing out reasons they should feel bad about themselves.

What’s behind the banter?

Looking specifically at ‘playful’ and ‘fun’, also bear in mind sayings like ‘many a true word is said in jest’ and ‘playing the fool to get away with murder’. Human beings have always used humour to indirectly communicate anger and ‘get even’. Stephen King goes so far as to say that ‘humour is almost always anger with make-up on’.

If banter is used to indirectly communicate anger, we’re avoiding dealing with the real issues in the relationship and will be adding to them. We all need the ability to openly, honestly and respectfully say to another person what we’re having difficulty with. Delivering sideways swipes is unlikely to get our need for connection met and probably just makes things worse.

As well as disguising anger, ‘banter’ can also be used to control, to enforce social ‘norms’, to bully and as a way to make someone feel superior by diminishing another. By using it to deflect from insecurities, though, it reinforces them by tarnishing relationships that might otherwise be a great source of well-being. It’s also unhelpful that this is all masked with fake, disorientating smiles.

Can banter be helpful?

Humour can, of course, be incredibly connecting and healing and there are people who believe teasing can actually enhance a healthy relationship. It might show our trust in another when we can playfully hold up a mirror to their flaws. It may even be easier for them to hear and receive what we’re saying.

Is it that teasing strengthens healthy relationships? Or is it that a relationship is healthy despite the teasing?

Whichever it is, what we can say for sure is that the warmth, kindness and support of true connection feels good and that, if banter doesn’t feel good, then it’s probably being weaponised for something else. People remember us for how they feel around us and, no matter how much we’ve got used to something else in their past, all of us like the feel of the validation, empathy, respect and gratitude that characterise true connection.

If we want good, connected relationships with ourselves and other people then, let’s be conscious of why we’re using banter and, even if it is experienced as fun by the other person (which they decide, not us), it’s a good idea to make sure it’s not the only way we relate to them. Both self-awareness and balance are, therefore, key here.

In terms of self-awareness, it’s important we act intentionally in life wherever possible, rather than on autopilot. Particularly because our default state will often cause us problems. If the idea of telling your lifelong friend what you like about them leaves you feeling uncomfortable, then maybe look at what’s happening here. If we want growth in life, we sometimes need to go past the psychological ‘edges’ signposted by our feelings of discomfort.

In relation to balance, if we’re sometimes playfully teasing someone about their flaws and coupling it with empathy and gratitude at other times, then great. Bear in mind here too though that it’s believed we need to hear at least five good things about us (some believe up to 20) to even equal one critical thing we hear. Are those the ratios you’re working to with your banter at the moment?

Just to add too, if you raise banter as an issue with someone and hear the usual ‘lighten up’, ‘that’s life snowflake’, that you’re being ‘boring’, ‘over-sensitive’, or ‘weak’, i.e., the words you might hear from those either unwilling or unable to level-up their behaviour, another great benefit of therapy is to make us more fearless.

Despite the ‘outward-inness’ of our past, we now decide how we behave. We’re then often less likely to ‘people please’ to our detriment and are better able to hold boundaries around what we’ll agree to in a relationship.

In this place, we know there’s no one in this life we can’t live without and that we don’t have to be the victim any more of a deficit of love either in our own childhood, or someone else’s. This more ‘inward-out life’, where we know it’s really all up to us now, is the place of true strength.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

Share this article with a friend
Cobham, Surrey, KT11 2BH

Written by John-Paul Davies, UKCP Accredited, MBACP, PG Dip

Cobham, Surrey, KT11 2BH

John-Paul (www.thistrustedplace.co.uk) is an experienced therapist running a busy private practice from his home in Cobham, Surrey. He has also published a well-received self-help book, 'Finding a Balanced Connection', currently available on Amazon.co.uk and recently released an online self-help course 'Life Unlimited' available via his website.

Show comments

Find a relationship counsellor

All therapists are verified professionals.

Real Stories

More stories

Related Articles

More articles