November 16 2021

Banter v Bullying – do you know the difference?

Banter – just a bit of fun right? Bit of fun between mates? Perhaps you consider yourself to be the Archbishop of Banterbury? Well we’re going to have to stop your banter bus right there and ask you a question – do you know when banter becomes bullying?

What are banter and bullying?

The word ‘banter’ is believed to have originated in London as street slang. It is defined by the Oxford Dictionaries as “the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks", whereas the government states there ‘is no legal definition of bullying’ but that it is usually defined as behaviour that is: repeated, intended to hurt someone either physically or emotionally and often aimed at certain groups, for example because of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

Confusing right! No wonder it’s hard to define the differences between banter and bullying!

This is also partly because down to the practice being subjective to the individual experiencing them. What might be banter for one person could be experienced as bullying to another! The key is knowing how to recognise the difference in each individual case and behave appropriately.

The balance of power

A good example of banter is the shared joking and teasing between friends, who each have equal power and are each giving and taking a fair share of the teasing. Banter could become bullying when there is an imbalance of power, or when one person is receiving more of the teasing than anyone else.

If someone seems to get teased more than others, or is the repeated target of a joke, then it’s not really banter anymore. That person is being singled out and is not giving back a fair share of the teasing in order to class it as banter.

Banter should be between people equal in power, and should also be equal in terms of give and take. Anything other than this and we could be verging onto bullying.

Offensive subjects

The subject of banter could sometimes be constituted as bullying, irrespective of the persons intention! Negative language or behaviour targeting any of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 are always considered inappropriate, irrespective of the bullying/banter debate. These are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, gender or sexual orientation.

If a person involved in banter has an insecurity or problem with a particular subject, it would not be banter to tease about this subject. For example, if someone was concerned about their weight then it would not be funny to tease them about this, even if they appeared to be joining in. Just because someone chooses certain words to use about themselves, it doesn’t give others the right to use those words too.

Is anyone offended?

Banter can be considered to ‘become’ bullying once the person giving the insult has the intention of causing harm or upset. But does their intention really matter? If someone is offended by a comment (even if by accident) – it’s no longer a joke and can no longer be considered banter.

Being a bystander

Often people will not be confident enough to stand up for themselves if they are hurt by something. They don’t want to be considered someone who can’t take a joke, so will often laugh along so as not to draw attention to themselves. This means that everyone is still under the illusion that this is banter, not bullying, and it will only be reinforced! Don’t be a bystander – if you suspect that some banter has become offensive to anyone involved, don’t laugh. Even better – call it out! Just because someone calls it banter, doesn’t mean it IS banter!

Why does it matter?

Unfortunately, this issue exists in many workplaces but a conversation very rarely takes place. People actually don’t even consider that their ‘banter’ might actually be bullying. If they did, most of them would have stopped, for no-one wants to be a bully!

So next time you are sharing ‘banter’ with your friends, family or colleagues, take five minutes to consider the above and how the situation may seem to others.


This article was originally issued in our SafetyInRail magazine in February 2021. Check previous editions here.


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