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In Defense of Teasing


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The Weapon of Language

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In Defense of Teasing

By DACHER KELTNER
Published: December 5, 2008
A FEW YEARS AGO my daughters and I were searching for sand crabs on a white-sand beach near Monterey. A group of sixth graders descended on us, clad in the blue trousers and pressed white shirts of their parochial school. Once lost in the sounds of the surf, away from their teacher’s gaze, they called one another by nicknames and mocked the way one laughed, another walked. Noogies and rib pokes, headlocks and bear hugs caught the unsuspecting off guard. Two boys dangled a girl over the waves. Three girls tugged a boy’s sagging pants down. Dog piles broke out. In a surprise attack, one girl nearly dropped a dead crab down a boy’s pants.

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As they departed in sex-segregated lines, my daughters stood transfixed. Serafina asked me, “Why did that girl try to put the crab in the boy’s pants?” “Because she likes him,” I responded. This was an explanation Serafina and her older sister, Natalie, only partly understood. What I witnessed might be called “the teasing gap.”

Today teasing has been all but banished from the lives of many children. In recent years, high-profile school shootings and teenage suicides have inspired a wave of “zero tolerance” movements in our schools. Accused teasers are now made to utter their teases in front of the class, under the stern eye of teachers. Children are given detention for sarcastic comments on the playground. Schools are decreed “teasing free.”

And we are phasing out teasing in many other corners of social life as well. Sexual-harassment courses advise work colleagues not to tease or joke. Marriage counselors encourage direct criticism over playful provocation. No-taunting rules have even arisen in the [sign in to see URL]. and the [sign in to see URL]. to discourage “trash talking.”

The reason teasing is viewed as inherently damaging is that it is too often confused with bullying. But bullying is something different; it’s aggression, pure and simple. Bullies steal, punch, kick, harass and humiliate. Sexual harassers grope, leer and make crude, often threatening passes. They’re pretty ineffectual flirts. By contrast, teasing is a mode of play, no doubt with a sharp edge, in which we provoke to negotiate life’s ambiguities and conflicts. And it is essential to making us fully human.

The centrality of teasing in our social evolution is suggested by just how pervasive teasing is in the animal world. Younger monkeys pull the tails of older monkeys. African hunting dogs jump all over one another, much like pad-slapping, joking football players moments before kickoff. In every corner of the world, human adults play peekaboo games to stir a sulking child, children (as early as age 1) mimic nearby adults and teenagers prod one another to gauge romantic interest. In rejecting teasing, we may be losing something vital and necessary to our identity as the most playful of species.

THE LANGUAGE OF TEASING

A few hundred years ago, teasing was anything but taboo. Jesters and fools enjoyed high status. With their sharp-tongued mockery, outlandish garb and entertaining pranks, they highlighted the absurdities of all that was held sacred, from newborns and newlyweds to kings, queens and leaders of the church. In the tradition of the jester or the fool lies the essence of what a tease is — a playfully provocative mode of commentary.

But attempts to define the nature of that commentary can be difficult, not least because language itself gets in the way. We may use “teasing” to refer to the affectionate banter of middle-school friends, to the offensive passes of impulsive bosses and to the language of heart-palpitating flirtation, to humiliation that scars psyches (harsh teasing about obesity can damage a child’s sense of self for years) and to the repartee that creates a peaceful space between siblings. It is necessary to look at how we use language — especially at how we deliver our spoken words — to get at what teasing actually is.

The answer can be found, paradoxically, in a classic study of politeness by Penelope Brown, a linguistics anthropologist, and Stephen Levinson, a cognitive anthropologist, which differentiates between “on-record” communication” and “off-record” communication. On-record communication is to be taken literally and follows the rules of what the philosopher Paul Grice described as “cooperative, direct speech”: what is said should be truthful, appropriately informative, on topic and clear. When doctors deliver prognoses about terminal illnesses or financial advisers announce the loss of family fortunes, they adhere to these rules like priests following Scripture.

Very often, though, we do not want our words to be taken too literally. When we speak in ways that risk offense, for example when we criticize a friend, we may add intentional vagueness or unnecessary circumlocutions. Say a friend proves to be too confrontational at a dinner party. To encourage greater civility, we might resort to indirect hints (“Say, did you read the latest by the Dalai Lama?”) or metaphor (“I guess sometimes you just need to blow off some steam”). These linguistic acts establish a new channel of communication — off-record communication — signaling that what is being said has an alternate meaning.

Teasing is just such an act of off-record communication: provocative commentary is shrouded in linguistic acts called “off-record markers” that suggest the commentary should not be taken literally. At the same time, teasing isn’t just goofing around. We tease to test bonds, and also to create them. To make it clear when we’re teasing, we use fleeting linguistic acts like alliteration, repetition, rhyming and, above all, exaggeration to signal that we don’t mean precisely what we’re saying. (“Playing the dozens,” a kind of ritualized teasing common in the inner city that is considered a precursor to rap, involves just this sort of rhyming: “Don’t talk about my mother ’cause you’ll make me mad/Don’t forget how many your mother had.”) We also often indicate we are teasing by going off-record with nonverbal gestures: elongated vowels and exaggerated pitch, mock expressions and the iconic wink, well-timed laughs and expressive caricatures. A whiny friend might be teased with a high-pitched imitation or a daughter might mock her obtuse father by mimicking his low-pitched voice. Preteens, sharp-tongued jesters that they are, tease their parents with exaggerated facial expressions of anger, disgust or fear, to satirize their guardians’ outdated moral indignation. Similarly, deadpan deliveries and asymmetrically raised eyebrows (Stephen Colbert), satirical smiles and edgy laughs (Jon Stewart) all signal that we don’t entirely mean what we say.

THE BENEFITS OF TEASING

The language of teasing is intimately linked to the language of social behavior. Because teasing allows us to send messages in indirect, masked ways, it is an essential means of navigating our often-fraught social environments. In teasing, we become actors, taking on playful identities to manage the inevitable conflicts of living in social groups.

Placed into groups, children as young as 2 will soon form a hierarchy — it will be clear even among toddlers who is in charge and who is not. Hierarchies have many benefits — the smooth division of labor and resources, protecting weaker members of the group — but they can be deadly to negotiate. Male fig wasps chop their rivals in half with their large mandibles. Narwhal males loll about with tusk tips embedded in their jaws — vestiges of their status contests. Coyotes engage in heavily coded bouts of play; those who don’t live shorter, ostracized lives.

Given the perils of negotiating rank, many species have evolved dramatized status contests, relying on symbolic displays of physical size and force to peacefully sort out who’s on top. Stags roar. Frogs croak. Chimps throw branches around. Hippos open their jaws as wide as possible to impress competitors.

And humans tease. Teasing can be thought of as a status contest with a twist. As humans evolved the ability to form complex alliances, the power of a single individual came increasingly to depend on the ability to build strong bonds. Power became a matter of social intelligence (the good of the group) rather than of survival of the fittest (raw strength). As a status contest, teasing must walk a fine line, designating status while enhancing social connection.


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Mar/13/2009, 9:27 am Link to this post  
 
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Take nicknames. One of the most common forms of teasing, they also serve to assign status and enhance or create social bonds. They commonly emerge in marriages, between friends, among co-workers and between the public and its leaders. Artful nicknames involve such off-record markers as exaggeration, alliteration and metaphor, which comment upon the individual’s excesses. Muhammad Ali was the Louisville Lip; Richard Nixon, Tricky Dick; and George W. Bush, Uncurious George. During my fifth-grade trip to the Mendocino tide pools, I became Dacher Kelp Crab to all, a fitting riff on my name, our coastal locale and my sullen temperament. Nicknames are relationship-specific placeholders. They allow us to escape to the world of play, where we mock in affectionate fashion and critique the powerful in safety.

To examine the role nicknames play in helping a community to function, Erin Heerey, now a professor at Bangor University in Wales, and I invited members of a University of Wisconsin fraternityto the laboratory one October, just after what is known as rush week, when pledges angle to gain acceptance at the frat of their choice. We divided the fraternity brothers into groups of four — two high-status “actives,” or established members of the group, and two new low-status “pledges.” We gave each participant two randomly generated initials — “A. D.” or “T. J.” or “H. F.” or “L. I.” — and asked them to generate a nickname and story for each of the other three.

Our participants came up with nicknames like “human fly,” “another drunk,” “turkey jerk,” “little impotent,” “anal duck” and “heffer fetcher.” Each tease turned out to be a 30-second morality play. One low-status pledge was known as Taco John. The story behind the nickname was this: The pledge had gotten drunk on 18 shots of Bacardi during a late-night feast at Taco John’s; he then disappeared and was found passed out on the toilet, with his pants around his ankles, holding his genitals. Among other things, the fraternity members were notifying one another about moral boundaries: don’t get too drunk, and keep your private parts to yourself.

In the content and tones of the teases, we uncovered a familiar status dynamic. High-status “actives” teased the “pledges” in sharper, more provocative fashion, putting them in their place. Each “pledge” went after the other low-status pledges with edgy provocations, no doubt jousting for an edge. But when it came to their new high-status brothers, the pledges used teasing to praise. The most popular “pledges” proved to be the more playful teasers and were themselves teased in more flattering fashion: within a couple of weeks of the group’s formation, 30-second teases were demarcating rank.

For all the put-downs, the teasing among frat brothers and pledges did not appear to do any lasting damage. In studying transcripts of these teasing contests, you might expect to find a thrown punch or two. Instead, the fraternity members became better friends after their playful humiliations. Frame-by-frame analyses of the videos of these status contests revealed how this happened. At the punch line of a particular tease, the four brothers would actually burst into laughter (the target, not surprisingly, more quietly). Thanks to the scientific study of laughter, we know that when friends laugh, they laugh in unison, their fight-flight response (e.g., increased blood pressure) is calmed and mirror neurons fire; shared laughter becomes a collective experience, one of coordinated action, cooperative physiology and the establishing of common ground.

Perhaps surprisingly, the momentary pain of being teased can lead to pleasure. During their 15 seconds of humiliation, the targets of teasing displayed common signs of embarrassment — gaze aversion; a coy, nervous smile; a hand touching the face; a head bowed submissively so as to expose the neck; and blushing. These gestures are ancient signs of appeasement that trigger a reconciliation response in most mammals, as they did in our study. The more targets showed these evanescent signs of embarrassment, the more the teasers liked them.

Still, it’s hard not to remember why teasing has a bad name when it results in what sounds an awful lot like humiliation. In situations where power asymmetries exist, as they do in a frat house, how do we separate a productive tease from a damaging one? In part it’s the nature of the provocation. Productive teasing is rarely physically hurtful and doesn’t expose deep vulnerabilities — like a romantic failure or a physical handicap. Off-record markers — funny facial expressions, exaggeration and repetition — also help mark the tease as playful rather than hostile. And social context means a lot. Where teasing provides an arena to safely explore conflict, it can join people in a common cause. Especially when they’re allowed to tease back.

THE ROMANCE OF TEASING

I still remember that day, as clear as a bell. Off to the side of the seventh-grade four-square game, Lynn, future high-school mascot, valedictorian, and my first love, approached me with hands coyly behind her back. She stopped unusually close, and with a mischievous smile framed by her cascading hair, asked, “Hey Dacher, wanna screw?” As I was in the midst of mumbling an earnest and affirmative reply, she held her hand open in front of me, a screw lying flat on her palm. “Just teasing” I heard amid the screeching laughter of the cabal of finger-pointing girls.

Had I trained my ear to discern the off-record markers of teasing, I would have detected subtle deviations from sincere speech in the artfully elongated vowels of Lynn’s enunciation (“Hey Daaaacher, wanna screeeuuw?”). Had I read my Shakespeare I would have known to counter with my own provocation, and my chances for requited love would have risen. Here is a first expression of love between two of literature’s great lovers, Beatrice and Benedick, from Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”:



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Mar/13/2009, 9:28 am Link to this post  
 
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BEATRICE: For which of my good parts did you first suffer love for me?

BENEDICK: Suffer love! A good epithet! I do suffer love indeed, for I love thee against my will.

BEATRICE: In spite of your heart, I think. Alas, poor heart, if you spite it for my sake, I will spite it for yours, for I will never love that which my friend hates.

BENEDICK: Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably.

To tease is to woo wisely.

Monica Moore, a psychologist at Webster University, surreptitiously observed teenage girls at a mall and found their packlike meanderings to be punctuated by bursts of teasing. These young Beatrices would veer into the orbits of young Benedicks (and vice versa) to tickle, poke, nudge and squeeze, creating opportunities for physical contact. Touch is registered in specialized receptors under the surface of the skin, our largest sensory organ. Touch calms stress-related physiology; it helps to activate reward regions of the brain and the release of oxytocin, a chemical that promotes feelings of devotion. Snails shoot dartlike appendages into potential sexual partners, to stimulate their paramour’s sexual organs. We tease. And when we do, we look for traces of the telltale signs of desire — the lip pucker, the lip lick, the mutual gaze that lasts beyond the [sign in to see URL] eye contact that defines more formal exchange. Teasing is the stage for the drama of flirtation, where suitors provoke in order to look for the sure signs of enduring commitment.

Long-term partners develop their own teasing idiom that weaves its way into their quotidian rhythms. This teasing typically focuses on sexual proclivities, bodily functions, sleep habits, eating habits and anachronistic fashion choices (my wife, Mollie, calls me “bison” when my hair begins to flip upward in nostalgic 1970s style). Such teasing marks partners’ quirks as deviant but endearing foibles, uniquely appreciated by the partner. Studies find that married couples with a rich vocabulary of teasing nicknames and formulaic insults are happier and more satisfied.

Romantic teasing provides a way of negotiating the conflicts that send many couples to the therapist’s couch. To explore how playful teasing shores up marital bonds, I asked couples to tease each other using the same nickname paradigm used in the fraternity study. The nicknames they invented drew on the metaphors of love documented by the Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff: they made references to each other as food objects (“apple dumpling”) or small animals (“adorable duckling”). The more satisfied the couple, the more the teasing was filled with off-record markers. And in a separate study, partners who managed to tease each other during a conflict — for example, over money or an infidelity — felt more connected after the conflict than those couples who resorted to the earnest criticism many therapists recommend. Teasing actually serves as an antidote to toxic criticism that might otherwise dissolve an intimate bond. Teasing is a battle plan for what Shakespeare called “the merry war.”

THE GOOD TEASE

Our rush to banish teasing from social life has its origins in legitimate concerns about bullies on the playground and at work. We must remember, though, that teasing, like so many things, gets better with age. Starting at around 11 or 12, children become much more sophisticated in their ability to hold contradictory propositions about the world — they move from Manichaean either-or, black-or-white reasoning to a more ironic, complex understanding. As a result, as any chagrined parent will tell you, they add irony and sarcasm to their social repertory. And it is at this age that you begin to see a precipitous drop in the reported incidences of bullying. As children learn the subtleties of teasing, their teasing is less often experienced as damaging.

In seeking to protect our children from bullying and aggression, we risk depriving them of a most remarkable form of social exchange. In teasing, we learn to use our voices, bodies and faces, and to read those of others — the raw materials of emotional intelligence and the moral imagination. We learn the wisdom of laughing at ourselves, and not taking the self too seriously. We learn boundaries between danger and safety, right and wrong, friend and foe, male and female, what is serious and what is not. We transform the many conflicts of social living into entertaining dramas. No kidding.

Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and an editor of the magazine Greater Good. His latest book, “Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life,” from which this essay is adapted, will be published next month by Norton.


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Buy 16 books and video lectures on 3 DVDs about narcissists, psychopaths, and abusive relationships

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Mar/13/2009, 9:28 am Link to this post  
 


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