A reader asked:
Having grown up with abuse, and having been in an abusive relationship after that, I have a lot of trouble dealing with “normal” teasing. I was used to being accused of all kinds of terrible things out of the blue. So if, for example, I accidentally take something that belongs to someone else, and they say, “Haha, you just wanted it for yourself!” I want to cry and beg forgiveness. I’m terrified and I can’t laugh. I feel I can’t ask people not to tease me, but I don’t know how to deal with it.
It’s ok to be bothered by this, and it’s ok to tell your friends not to tease you.
Playful teasing is only friendly if everyone likes it. A lot of people don’t like it, and a lot of people don’t do it. It’s entirely possible to be friends without insulting or teasing one another. If someone teases someone who they know hates it, that’s not a joke anymore, it’s just being mean. It’s not ok to be mean to other people for fun.
It’s ok to say “I don’t like jokes like that; please don’t say things like that to me.” You don’t have to explain in order for it to be ok to tell people to stop teasing you. Continuing to do stuff like that is already a jerk move, even if people don’t know your history. Not liking it is a good enough reason.
It’s also ok if you do want to disclose (and for some people, it might make it more likely that they’ll take it seriously and realize how important it is not to make jokes like that with you). But you don’t have to disclose in order for it to be legitimate to insist that people stop. If you do want to disclose, it’s usually better if it’s not in the heat of the moment, but when you’re relatively calm.
Most people don’t want to say intentionally hurtful things to their friends. Some people realize that some people find playful teasing hurtful, and will readily stop if you tell them you don’t like it. Some people don’t understand that some people don’t like it, and will probably have to be reminded several times before they take it seriously. Some people are mean and will keep saying things like that to you even after you say to stop, and some people might even start saying them more because they think it’s funny that it bothers you. Part of the solution to this might be to make sure you’re hanging out with people who care about treating you well, as much as possible. Having friends who are kind makes life a lot better on a number of levels.
A possible script for disclosing:
- “Hey, I know you weren’t intending it but playful teasing and joke insults really scare me. Too many people in my life have accused me of ludicrous things in order to hurt me, so I have trouble telling when it’s a joke and I tend to freak out. Can you please not say things like that to me?”
Another possibility: finding ways to tell whether they mean it or not:
Think about the person you’re with, and what’s likely to be their intention:
- How well do you know the person you’re with?
- Have you seen them joke insult people before?
- Have you seen them actually aggressively accuse people of ludicrous things out of the blue?
- If you’ve seen them tease people in a way intended to be friendly and haven’t seen them make horrible baseless accusations out of the blue, they’re probably not trying to hurt you
- That doesn’t make it ok, and it doesn’t mean you’re wrong to object
- But it does mean that they’re probably not trying to hurt you, and you’re probably not in any danger
Look at body language:
- This isn’t possible for some people who get scared in this situation, but it can work for some people
- Look at their face: Does it have an angry expression, or do they look happy?
- Look at their hands: Are they held in a way that looks angry or violent, or do they look like they’re just socializing?
- Think about their tone of voice: Did they sound mad? Was their voice raised? Or are they talking in a tone that seems more friendly?
- (Many people have a specific tone of voice that they only use for teasing or joke insults)
- Are they looking at you in a way that’s demanding an answer?
- If their body language and tone of voice doesn’t seem aggressive, they probably didn’t mean the words they said aggressively either.
Check how other people are reacting:
- Do other people seem to notice the offense you’ve supposedly committed, or are they continuing the conversation they were already having?
- Does anyone look mad, or do they just look like people socializing?
- Have other people in the group stopped what they’re doing to look at you, or are they continuing as they were?
- If other people in the group don’t look mad, or don’t look much interested, the teasing was probably meant as a joke rather than a serious insult or accusation
Another possibility: using a standard script to create some distance:
- It can help to immediately change the subject when someone says something like that
- If they were just joking around, they will likely be receptive to the subject change
- Changing the subject can show you that you are safe and not under attack
- It can be hard to find words in the moment to change the subject
- It might help to memorize some subject-changing scripts and use standard ones every time this happens
- Then you won’t have to think of something to say in the moment while you are freaking out
- Which scripts are most effective will depend on you and your group
- (This post on deflecting fight-pickers has a lot of subject-change scripts.)
- You can also change the subject back to what people were talking about before
- Eg: “So, you were saying about the cats we’re all here to talk about? What do you think about the fluffy ones? I see your point about their hair getting matted easily, but they’re so pretty and soft.”
Another possibility: asking what they meant:
- Sometimes you can defuse fear by asking people whether they mean it
- ie: “Do you really think I was just trying to take it for myself?”
- This can be awkward, but it can also be effective
- Whether or not it’s a good idea depends on your friend groups
- Some people might get offended and sarcastically say yes, of course they think that.
- If you can’t read sarcasm when you’re scared, this might backfire
- But when it works, it can work really well
It would probably also be a good idea to work on having perspective when other people are angry at you. Your friends and people close to you will be angry at you sometimes. That doesn’t always mean that you’re in danger or that they are going to hurt you. It also doesn’t always mean that you have done something wrong. Finding anger more bearable will help you in a lot of aspects of your life, including when people tease you. If anger is less terrifying, teasing will also be less terrifying.
Short version: Teasing is only friendly if everyone likes it. Doing it to people who don’t like it is mean. It’s ok not to want to be teased or insulted, even as a joke. It’s ok to ask people to stop. Some people will take that request seriously and some won’t. (Everyone should, but not everyone does). If teasing scares you because you have trouble telling the difference between real insults and joke insults, there are things you can learn to look for that make it easier to tell the difference. It also helps to learn how to keep perspective in the face of other people’s anger. Scroll up for some more concrete information.