May we tease?

I have realized this week how terribly I am led to tease people. It’s a very bad habit that I got from my father, but since I never had much of an ego of my own, and was teased mercilessly and cruelly all throughout my childhood, it feels to me as though teasing, of the loving, funny kind, is what communicates intimacy.

It was odd to me the first time this resulted in a failure of a friendship, when a particular ex-boyfriend of mine revealed himself to be incredibly vain about his perception of his own age, that he could pass for ten years younger, which, let’s be honest, was a bit absurd. He looked great for 35, but 25 he’d never be again. I never said a word until he attempted to lie on a form asking our ages for a preview movie screening.

I’ve also realized that I tease more, as a teacher, than I ever do in other circumstances, and almost exclusively when I really intensely love my students. One said to me, when I asked why they were so very nervous about their final exam, “I think you forget that we’re not as smart as you are.” I responded, “No, that’s not true. I never forget that.” Imagine it with a broad smile and a giggle. It was funny!

But it’s also mean, I think. And I worry about the fact that it’s mean. It’s how I was raised, to think that a good funny tease is the most extreme expression of intimacy. But it can also hurt. I remember from when I was very young that it did hurt. And actual cruelty hurts me to the bone. But something funny? I can’t possibly care.

How sensitive are you to teasing about things that matter to you? Does it help, or does it make everything harder?

5 responses to “May we tease?”

  1. LP says:

    This is such a great question; it’s gotten me to mulling different scenarios all morning. Teasing is a very tricky business, because even when it’s meant in a light-hearted way, or as an expression of intimacy, it is also inescapably an expression of dominance. It is one person noting something weak or funny about another person, so no matter how well intended, it can feel barbed.

    I remember being teased by my dad to the point where I would cry; he either didn’t know or didn’t mind that I found it painful. I suspect he thought I should just buck up and laugh too – but when someone is pointing out your own weaknesses, that’s hard to do. Especially as an adolescent.

    I also think that someone who teases another person a lot is expressing a form of (albeit mild) hostility to that person. What is the purpose of a tease? Is it to make the other person laugh? Or to make them feel a little … called out? Sometimes when we tease, I think we aren’t even totally aware of why we’re doing it. But there’s often some underlying discomfort that we’re giving voice to.

  2. josh k-sky says:

    This is one of the reasons my mother is so very happy to no longer be married to my father. He and my stepmom go at each other like Peg and Al Bundy, and they seem to enjoy it, but it’s not for me. I mean, I do it sometimes, occasionally even thrillingly well, but whenever I remember how little I like taking it, I try to stop dishing it out.

  3. swells says:

    I too only tease the students I really love–and in my mind it’s showing them so–but wonder if that’s misguided. I get teased at home a lot, and it’s to show that I’m loved, but even then it really makes me squirm. I always think it leads to quicker intimacy, with new acquaintances, but I’m seeing what LP says about dominance. Barbed. It’s no good.

  4. A White Bear says:

    The teasing I do with students is not something I’m ready to give up because it creates an intimate-but-itchy relationship that I find to be productive of the best possible work. I take shit from them too, and I kind of love it. I tease them about liking crap music, and they accuse me of being an avant-gardist snob. I accuse them of whining too much about difficulty, and they accuse me of being a sadist. I promise, it’s all in good fun! And for real, I get better work from my students than anyone. This shit is golden.

  5. LP says:

    Well, the most important thing in any teasing is really tone, isn’t it? The exact same teasing statement can feel very different coming from two different people, depending on how it’s said, what the relationship is, etc. Also, it makes a difference if the teaser is happy about being teased in response. It seems as though your relationships with students are enhanced by mutual teasing, AWB, so obviously there’s a tone that works for you.