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Change & conflict management at work
Change & conflict management at work

"It was only a bit of banter..."

Whenever I hear the phrase “It was just banter!” I get the uneasy feeling that what is being said is actually “Yes, I said offensive things, but it is entirely your fault for feeling offended. You listened in the wrong way!”

Banter is a word that crops up from time to time in the mediation room and following Sir Phillip Green’s recent “explanation” of his actions I thought it would be good to explore it.

Collins Dictionary defines it as:
“Banter is teasing or joking talk that is amusing and friendly.”

Well, that’s alright then. Sounds rather jolly, doesn’t it? However, banter, as with all social interaction relies on a mutual understanding and agreement about the context of the parties’ relationship.

In the context of an established relationship where parties feel equal and have affection for each other, we can and do use quite caustic humour. My husband will, in the privacy of our kitchen, hold forth at length and in depth about my clumsiness, his words sound sharp, unsympathetic and mocking but I will laugh until I can hardly speak. Because of the context, because I am confident in our relationship and know that I am loved and valued. Because I know that our equality means that I can turn the tables on him and treat his foibles in the same manner.

If David were to use the same words and tone to a member of his staff, about their clumsiness, it's pretty clear that it wouldn’t be acceptable let alone funny. The context is entirely different, and crucially, there is no equality in the relationship – it’s a boss-employee relationship, deliberately not equal.

If David were to use the same words and tone to me in a public setting, they wouldn’t be acceptable because we have to take account of all the other people who can hear, who don’t share the context of our relationship, who might be uncomfortable about the way David is speaking to me or (worse) might feel that it’s okay to mock me and join in now or later.

Now, it is perfectly possible that you have great relationships with your colleagues at work. You know each other well, are comfortable with each other and feel completely equal. Using humour and ribbing each other is a natural, normal part of life and must be okay in that context. Yes?

Mmmm, well the thing is that the context of a relationship isn’t a static thing. It shifts and morphs second by second depending on what else is going on. So what works and feels acceptable one day can be deeply offensive the next. Things that can impact on relationship context at work include:

•    Having a minor disagreement about the best way of doing something
•    Being in competition - for a promotion, a new project, a popular shift, leave at Christmas…
•    One individual’s state of mind - in pain, fell out with their teenage child this morning, worried about money…
•    A change in status – someone being promoted or standing in for the boss or leading on a piece of work
•    Perceived inequality – “she took the last biscuit” or “he’s always late back from lunch.”

The difficulty is, of course, that we may, by continuing with humour that is “normal” in our relationship find that we have given offence where none was intended. Because the context of the relationship has changed, and we haven’t caught up with that yet.  It is easy to feel wrongfooted and upset ourselves if this happens and often we will say things like “Don’t get so upset, it was only a joke” or “Huh! Can’t you take a joke?” Which is basically saying that if they are offended it is their own fault.

Well, I don’t agree with that, If I have said something that has offended someone, even if I didn’t mean to, the fault is mine.   The best thing to do if we have offended someone unintentionally is to apologise immediately and unreservedly “I am sorry to have upset you, I won’t do that again.”

Even in the most harmonious, egalitarian, comfortable teams in the universe there are some subjects that are balanced so finely on the edge of the acceptable that they can have no place in banter at all. If you are tempted to make comments, jokes or asides about sex, gender and sexuality, race, disability or religion, then I would strongly suggest that you don’t.

Equally, if you know that a colleague has a deeply held belief in vegetarianism then making jokes about abattoirs or wafting bacon rolls under their nose is not humorous, it’s you being unpleasant.

Lastly, I just want to emphasise that If you suspect that there may be inequality in your relationship with someone (e.g. you are a multi-millionaire who has been knighted for services to industry with the power to hire and fire at will, and the other party isn’t) then the best advice I can offer is “Don’t do banter.”