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Playful banter or bullying - when is a joke not a joke?

Banter can be described as playful teasing between friends. In most cases it can be a positive thing: it can help to build relationships, improve morale on jobsites and lead to a lot of laughter and fun. However, it is important to watch out for signs it has crossed a line.

Most of us would agree that constant or intentionally cruel, degrading, or hostile jokes are clearly unwelcome and likely to humiliate. In contrast, good natured or inclusive teasing or ribbing that is amusing to all present is much less likely to humiliate. But lying between these two extremes of behaviour is a murky borderline that is very difficult to pin down.

There are bound to be differences of opinion as to what is funny and what is not – individual senses of humour often vary wildly!  There is, however, an “acceptability” threshold. When crossed, “harmless” jokes which are objectively unreasonable and that might harm or offend any person are likely to be found to be workplace bullying – with very serious repercussions for those involved.

Those who make the comments might even believe that what they are saying is a joke and not intended to hurt, when (in reality) they are being insensitive to the other person’s feelings.

It’s often the case that the person on the receiving end of this “banter” feels like they can’t speak out about it because it may seem like they can’t take a joke. This can be especially true for younger workers who are adapting from school to work and don’t want to appear “soft”.

Understanding the difference between bullying and banter is crucial for everyone, here’s how to make sure that what is done in jest isn’t in fact bullying.

How far is too far? When does banter become bullying?

Know what humour is acceptable

Making fun of someone’s race, gender, religion, disability, ethnicity, or appearance isn’t acceptable.

If it isn’t funny, don’t laugh

We’ve all been there; you’re all having a laugh and someone oversteps the mark. Because of the group or setting, you laugh it off. However, if you don’t call someone out on taking it too far, it’s only going to encourage more comments of a similar vein.

Don’t stand by and let it happen if someone is clearly not having fun

It’s not ok to be a bystander. If someone else is clearly not enjoying a bit of a banter, then don’t be afraid to speak out. Often the person saying the hurtful comments will stop when they realise that they don’t have an audience.

Don’t pick on something you know someone is already insecure about – it’s a cheap shot!

Never pick up on a feature that could be a sensitive subject for someone. Laughing at someone’s appearance is not ok, as you don’t know how self-conscious they are.

Saying “it’s just a joke” doesn’t lessen the impact of a hurtful comment

Just because you say it’s a joke, doesn’t mean it is. Think before you speak and put the shoe on the other foot: would you find it funny? Remember, once it’s out there, it’s hard to take back.

Working in the building industry can be tough - you need to have fun and enjoy going to work. Banter is key but it’s important to recognise when someone is experiencing actual bullying, disguised as banter. 

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