Humor, at Someone Else’s Expense, Can Cut More Deeply Than You’ll Ever Know

Photo: Rebecca Morgan, Mekong River


In my family caustic teasing was de rigueur. We would be teased about anything the teaser thought was funny, no matter how humiliating, and with no thought to how it would leave the receiver feeling. Didn’t do well on a test? You’d be teased about being dumb. Boyfriend broke up with you? He must have finally figured out you are a loser. Lose the student election? They could see you are a follower, not a leader.

The more humiliating the better, from the teaser’s perspective. This wasn’t limited to us kids teasing each other; our parents joined in — or initiated — with glee. The more sensitive the receiver was about the topic, the more the tormentor enjoyed it.

Have you ever teased others about something you knew they were sensitive?

It’s a form of bullying.

In my mind teasing — really it was put downs — was normal, so I teased people indiscriminately — friends, family, my then-husband, strangers. It went over better with some than others. My then-husband would laugh at my zingers targeting him. When friends witnessed this, they thought I was mean. Which I was. But I didn’t really comprehend this because he would laugh. I had been raised that this was a way to show affection, even though it often stung when I was on the receiving end. Now I know this is twisted.

I had become a female Don Rickles. I was a human Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. If someone laughed I thought it was fine.

As I grew more aware, I saw that this was really a power play. Family members would tease each other to assert dominance until the one being teased would cry or storm out slamming doors. The exchange still hurt even if it was I who “won.”

I now see humor at another’s expense (teasing, put downs, “funny” insults, digs or zingers) as abuse. There are many forms of abuse, including verbal and emotional.

You know you’re bullying when the other person doesn’t take it well and you hear yourself saying, “What, you can’t take a joke?” or “You’re too sensitive — I was joking.” or “Lighten up — I was just kidding!” Joking by making fun of someone else is passive-aggressive bullying.

In fact, you may be saying this now: “You’re being too sensitive. Joking around is fun! My friends tweak each other all the time. We laugh about it!” They may laugh because if they didn’t it would make them seem weak. However, it may hurt deeply. I’ve heard people tease pals about their weight, balding, income, looks, intelligence, and relationships (or lack thereof). The problem is teasing is often based on a kernel of truth. The receiver may not be self-conscious about it, or he may be very sensitive. You never know.

Even if the person laughs, when she is alone, she may have serious self-doubts about the thing you’ve pointed out with your cutting humor. The teasing may cause her to go into a self-loathing spiral. She may self-harm as a way to cope.

Some people think, “I have to zing back to show I’m not weak.” You can be strong without resorting to bullying. You don’t want to lower yourself to the other’s level.

Teasing has cost me relationships. Thanks to caring friends and professionals pointing out how my teasing is not conducive to healthy relationships, I’ve become more aware of this habit and I’ve curtailed it significantly. Is it totally gone? I have to admit I sometimes find myself spewing a zinger. But is rare now. When I do, I apologize to the person afterwards.

When you find yourself engaging in teasing and zingers, ask yourself what you think it accomplishes. If you think that’s just how you interact with your friends, try not contributing and see what happens. Do you feel you are closer or less? My guess is the former. Your friends might actually start zinging you for your lack of zinging!

If teasing, digs and zings are part of your friends’ and family’s behavior, try this: zing yourself. Make yourself the focus of the dig. Be the butt of the joke. They may pile on. But at least you’re not inflicting harm onto others.