You may have noticed that having “good banter” seems aspirational today, particularly among younger people and men. It’s a behaviour we learn from our environment and is intended to be 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 great, connecting behaviour. Before looking at whether this is the reality of banter though, let’s run through the three main systems in all of us for some context. We all have:
- The problem-focused “threat” survival system that takes care of our safety need
- The “drive” or “reward” system, with its drives to eat, have sex and acquire more status and money and compete with others
- The “connection” system, where love, friendship and attachment all sit.
Although all these are keys to our surviving and thriving in their own ways, threat is the place of uncomfortable feelings like anger and fear and reward only ever gives us short-term highs. If you’re looking for a consistent sense of well-being, this only sits in our connection part – the place of love for self and others.
You might wonder then why we don’t spend most of our time in connection? Unfortunately though, 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 about it, we’re designed to struggle in this way.
Looking at banter again, although the definition suggests it’s about connection, it actually involves finding flaws in another person. This is threat working, not connection. If you also look at banter’s “sparring” as a form of competition, this is actually reward rather than connection. Occupying our competitive reward part with others means either being better or less than them, never being in connection with them.
The point here is relationships only really feel good when we’re mainly in connection within them. Hold in mind that, 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.
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”. People have always used humour to “get even” and indirectly communicate anger. Stephen King goes so far as to say that “humour is almost always anger with make-up on”.
When banter is used to covertly communicate anger, we’re avoiding dealing with the real issues in the relationship and will probably be adding to them. It’s also unhelpful that this is masked with fake, disorientating smiles. We all need the ability to honestly and respectfully say to another person what we’re having difficulty with. That’s really the only way we’ll get our need met for change in the relationship.
Humour can, of course, be really connecting and healing and there are people who believe teasing can actually enhance a healthy relationship. It might show our trust in someone that 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 though, 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 they’ve got used to something else in their past, all of us like the feel of the validation, empathy and respect 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, even if it is experienced as funny by the other person (which they decide, not us). 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 oldest friend what you love about them leaves you feeling uncomfortable, then maybe look at what’s happening here.
It’s also a good idea to make sure that banter isn’t the only way we relate to the other person. If we sometimes playfully tease someone about their flaws and couple it with lots of 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” the words you might hear from those either unwilling or unable to level-up their behaviour, let’s try to be more fearless. Despite the “outward-inness” of our past, we now decide how we behave. Let’s try not to “people please” to our detriment and to be aware of and hold boundaries in our relationships. We need to 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, that can be the source of “banter”. This more “inward-out life”, where we know it’s really all up to us now, is the place of true strength.
John-Paul Davies is a counsellor, therapist, and coach. He is the author of Finding a Balanced Connection.
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