To make workplaces more inclusive, banter needs to be redefined

Banter is defined as: the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks. The dictionary says; “There was much good-natured banter”. Banter typically takes place between peers with witty and equal repartee. Whether it’s at school, at home between siblings, in the locker room or in the office, there will always be comments thrown around in jest. Humour is vital to the work experience and life in general after all  But banter needs to be redefined, so that it is no longer an excuse for hurtful or politically incorrect dialogue.

Banter has a dark side. It can easily tip over into verbal abuse or bullying. Those who make the comments might believe that what they say is a joke and not intended to cause harm. Those who do speak out are ridiculed for not being able to take a joke, for being spoil sports, thin-skinned, sensitive or aggressively derided for being tiresomely politically correct.

Senior banter

We are seeing a growing trend to call inappropriate comments,suggestive, or bullying remarks “banter” by the person who is speaking them. But this tends only to be done when their banter is not acceptable to the recipient. The most recent case is the UK  retail billionaire Sir Philip Green, the owner of Topshop. He has denied sexual harassment and racist abuse of staff, insisting he was only “indulging in banter.”

Green was recently outed as the businessman who obtained an injunction to prevent the reporting of allegations of harassment, while saying he had not intended to cause offence. He is said to have paid out significant sums of money in exchange for non-disclosure agreements. Green himself has a reputation for rudeness and a hectoring manner. Do people really need massive compensation because someone called them “darling?” If I had a seven-figure payment for being at the receiving end of “banter” I would probably be a billionaire myself.

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The banter defence becomes null and void if one of those involved is in a much more senior role. Junior staff or those not in an equal power position can’t possibly respond with the same level of “banter”. The children’s author Matt Haig said on Twitter:

Banter needs to be redefined

If a person needs to reference something as banter, it probably wasn’t. The failure to understand that comments we make are not banter suggests a complete lack of empathy. It implies an inability to monitor our own speech and self-edit and regulate. It also suggests an attitude of entitlement and power, to believe that people can say anything to anyone and be able to get away with it.

banter needs to be redfined

Fellow “banterers”

The word banter needs to be redefined. We have reached a point culturally where there has been a public shift in meaning. At one time banter was considered harmless verbal sparring between equals, although I am sure it has always been hurtful to some. Now the term is only used retro-actively when someone expresses hurt or offence. We need to call it what it is: abuse and bullying. It is seen as an excuse to be rude, racist, insulting, ignorant or sexist by the “in group”  which then victim-blames the “out group” for not getting the intention.

Banter is on the misogyny spectrum. It supports and embeds a culture of discrimination (gender, ethnicity, physical ability, religious affiliation) and exclusion for whomever it targets. It has no place in an inclusive culture.


There are many cultural aspects which are embedded in our behaviour yet detrimentally affect the inclusivity of the workplace. 3Plus can help you manage these with our Unconscious Bias Training Workshops.

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