The problem with banter

by Nov 9, 2021

What’s the problem with banter?


The problem with banter it is now very much a part of the interaction between co-workers in the less formal workplace culture.


We all hear comments every day that are said in jest or as a throwaway remark that sound funny, or perhaps not. Humour can have a dark side. Many will step in to defend the speaker. The “joker” may defend themselves. But the problem with banter is that when we excuse it, we don’t realise we are adding a second micro-aggression to the first.

The message we are sending is your feelings or viewpoint don’t matter. It’s a form of gaslighting. Very often it is couched in victim-blaming

“Where’s your sense of humour?”

“You need to lighten up”

This is an insult twice over. When the person refuses to retract or apologise and suggests that somehow you are at fault for not playing the “embed-the-abuse game,” then that is an additional cut. To quote @TheBossRoss on Twitter ” I always refer to them as a “thousand cuts”. They’re deceitfully innocuous microaggressions, but as a whole, cumulatively very harmful.”

problems with banter

What is banter?

“Banter” defined as the “playful exchange of teasing remarks” used to be associated with groups of friends socialising. As workplace cultures shift and become less formal, banter is now very much a part of the interaction between co-workers. In some cases, there can be a genuine misunderstanding around a remark and the person may not be aware that they had crossed a line. In others, it’s a gateway behaviour to bullying and even harassment.

Any repetitive pattern of micro-aggressions, and this is what constant teasing is, can have a negative impact on physical and psychological health. Many targets are reluctant to pursue a complaint and there have even been reports of HR departments telling them to “toughen up and ignore it.”

Within organisations there are different levels of tolerance of inappropriate “bantering.” Organisations let certain employees get away with it because they may have a vital operational or commercial role. What frequently happens is they are surrounded by people who either support them – which can lead to mobbing, or co-workers who feel harassed.  This impacts their motivation and engagement which damages productivity.

The problem with banter

Playful teasing can be a double-edged sword.

  1. Gemma, a redhead, was teased endlessly about her freckles.
  2. Bhavini was teased about her name. “I’ll just call you Bev”
  3. Callie received remarks about being “an uptown girl” and for going to an exclusive private school.

Paul Sinha tweeted this beautifully.

Banter is like sex. It’s a two way street based on mutual respect and understanding. If you are doing it on your own you’re a (rhymes with banker)


problem with banter

Finding a balance

The most important element in these situations is to find balance.  Having fun is part of building up a strong workplace culture and being on a great and relaxed team. We all enjoy it.  It is one of the major reasons that people want to go back to the workplace after the pandemic. If a complaint is made any HR person will try to establish the intention. This should be yours too at the time of the incident, as either a target or a bystander. If the person persists after the incidents are pointed out and they are told they are offensive or upsetting, then at that point the issue should be escalated.

Managing the atmosphere in any workplace is about agreeing on what is appropriate and also both training and informal education. That is setting people straight. I am a huge fan of team charters about agreeing on limits so that it’s easy to let people know when they have overstepped boundaries that have been set and agreed by all.

More importantly, it involves everyone speaking up and keeping an open dialogue around what they find amusing and what they don’t. This means those on the receiving end of banter feel heard and the “joker” is able to understand how they could have caused offense or hurt.

If they persist then this takes the issue into another category altogether of verbal abuse. This is the problem with banter. It frequently escalates which is why it has to be managed.


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Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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