Teasing is central to human social life. In fact, in one study of grade-school children, more than 96% of respondents said they had been teased, and more than 50% admitted to teasing others. Teasing is as varied as the people doing the teasing and being teased. Teasing can be purely physical or verbal, and ranges widely in its affiliative or hostile intent. People tease to socialize, negotiate conflicts, flirt, and play. Empirical studies of this pervasive social practice have yielded answers to several intriguing questions.
A first question may be the most basic and most elusive to answer: What is teasing? Empirical studies of teasing lead to the following definition: Teasing is a behavior designed to provoke a target through the use of playful commentary on something relevant to the target. This provocation can be verbal (a cutting remark) or physical (an embarrassing gesture) and, by definition, threatens the teaser’s and the target’s desired social identity, or what some call “face.” If the tease is too harsh, the target risks embarrassment or hurt feelings, and the teaser risks looking overly aggressive. To minimize these risks, teases are often accompanied by playful behaviors designed to signal that the tease is not meant to be taken too literally and that it is delivered, in part, in the spirit of play. Some examples of these behaviors, called off-record markers, include using a singsong voice, exaggerated facial expressions, metaphors, and unusual speed of delivery. Lastly, the tease is directed at something relevant to the target: either a commentary on the target himself or herself, the relationship between the target and the teaser, or some object of interest to the target. This definition helps clarify the differences between teasing and other related behaviors. The most common of these is bullying, which is a direct act of hostility that lacks the playful markers that signal playful, even affectionate, intent.
Equipped with a working definition of teasing, a second question can be asked: When do people tease? Observational studies in which researchers have documented the occurrence of teasing in naturalistic contexts, for example, in family dinner conversations or at work, reveal that teasing usually occurs in response to two kinds of social disturbances: norm deviations and interpersonal conflicts. First, individuals often tease others who have violated social norms. Elementary school children have been observed teasing each other for playing with classmates of the opposite sex or following violations of gender norms. Parents sometimes tease their children when they sulk or act selfishly. Coworkers tease one another in response to violations of the ethics and standards of the workplace.
Teasing often arises in a second context of social tension: conflict. Studies have indicated that siblings tease each other more during conflict situations, friends are more likely to tease each other during discussions of their conflicting goals and beliefs, and coworkers are more likely to tease when addressing hot-button issues, such as allocation of office space. Provocative and at times unpleasant, teasing in fact serves important prosocial functions, enabling individuals to signal and negotiate norm violations and interpersonal conflict.
Variations in Contexts of Teasing
Given that teasing socializes and figures in conflict resolution, how then does it vary across different contexts? The same tease, it seems on the surface, acquires radically different meaning when delivered by superiors rather than peers or in formal as opposed to informal settings. Several studies have documented how the nature of the social context influences the content and meaning of a tease. Qualities of the relationship between the teaser and the target, such as social power and familiarity, have been found to influence teasing. High-power individuals are less dependent on others and are thus less concerned with the risks associated with teasing. High-power individuals, it should come as little surprise, are more likely to tease than low-power individuals, and they tease in a more hostile, less playful manner. The degree of closeness between teaser and target also affects teasing behavior, as individuals are less concerned about saving face in front of close others. As a result, people are more likely to tease close others than strangers, and to do so in a more direct manner. This may account in part for the ironic tendency for teasing, although aggressive, to be a signal of affection.
There also exist developmental differences in the content and meaning of teasing. Teasing, by its very nature, involves several capacities that develop with age. Among these are the ability to understand non-literal communication and many of the playful tactics used in teasing such as irony and sarcasm. As a result, older children are more likely to tease than are younger children, and to do so in a more subtle and sophisticated manner. The content of teasing also changes with age, as certain social norms become more or less relevant. For example, possessiveness and aggression are important topics for teasing in preschool, whereas experimental behaviors related to sex and drug use are focused on in adolescence and young adulthood.
Who, then, is more likely to tease? Gender is one important determinant of the frequency and content of teasing. In general, men have been found to tease more than women when interacting with same- and opposite-sex friends as well as with children. Some studies suggest that while men have been observed to tease in more hostile and direct ways, women use more indirect methods, such as social exclusion. Gender has also been related to differences in teasing content, with men teasing more about physical appearance and women teasing more about the target’s relationships.
The personalities of the individuals involved also shapes teasing in important ways. Highly agreeable individuals, who report great warmth and cooperativeness, tease less often in general, and when they do tease, they do so in more affectionate, less hostile fashion. In addition, Agreeableness has also been associated with stronger feelings of remorse after teasing someone. Highly extraverted individuals tease more often and feel less empathy toward the target than do those low in Extraversion. In addition, the target’s personality and past history of teasing have been related to reactions to being teased. Among individuals who have been teasers themselves, individuals high on Agreeableness and Extraversion respond more positively to being teased than those low in Agreeableness and Extraversion.
Research on Teasing
The empirical study of teasing is relatively new, and numerous questions await empirical answers. Current research is systematically examining how culture shapes the content and meaning of teasing. Studies within development are exploring how teasing is involved in language acquisition. Other studies are exploring how individuals with deficits in the cognitive capacities required of teasing understand teasing and tease themselves. It looks as though high-functioning autistic children have particular difficulties in seeing the playful intent of teasing and generating playful teasing. Still other lines of research are exploring how the teasing of bullies goes woefully awry and how to intervene. Continued research of these and other important issues pertaining to teasing will continue to enhance understanding and appreciation of this complex social phenomenon.
- Keltner, D., Capps, L., Kring, A. M., Young, R. C., & Heerey, E. A. (2001). Just teasing: A conceptual analysis and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 127, 229-248.
- Keltner, D., Young, R. C., Heerey, E. A., Oemig, C., & Monarch, N. D. (1998). Teasing in hierarchical and intimate relations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 1231-1247.
- Kowalski, R. M. (2000). “I was only kidding!”: Victims’ and perpetrators’ perceptions of teasing. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26, 231-241.
- Kowalski, R. M. (2004). Proneness to, perceptions of, and responses to teasing: The influence of both intrapersonal and interpersonal factors. European Journal of Personality, 18, 331-349.