Language: Where do we draw the line? The difference between banter and bullying

The difference between bullying and banter has been talked about for decades. Where does playful ‘joshing’ turn into something hurtful and potentially bullying?

Cartoon showing playful joking around turn into increasingly repetitious and threatening bullying behaviour.

Early on in my career I was confronted with this very dilemma within a training session with volunteer sports coaches. At the session, I put out the question to the group ‘What is the difference between bullying and banter?’ the room went quiet until a very confident hand popped up at a table at the back of the room: ‘The difference is if I call you a bad name when I don’t know you, that’s bullying. But if I call my mate here …’ a sheepish looking man sat next to him started looking nervous ‘a fat [word I won’t repeat], then that’s banter because he’s my mate.’

The room went silent and with it being one of my first training sessions I delivered, I had a choice. Do I challenge what he said and potentially make the embarrassment for his friend last even longer? Or, do I skip over it and pretend it didn’t happen? I’m ashamed to say, being relatively inexperienced, I skipped over it. But it stuck with me and I’ve replayed what I would have said repeatedly since.

What I would have said was: No, what you’ve done is change what might be a joke between two friends into a public sphere with a lot of people who don’t know your relationship or the context within it. It actually doesn’t matter whether or not the man thought what he said was just joking around. It was clear from his friend’s face that he was uncomfortable and hurt by it.

Banter is part of the reason why at ABA we bang on about the need for a shared understanding of bullying. In this incident, the power of the relationship between the two of them shifted when he included the whole room in it. Bullying is hurtful, repetitive, intentional and involves an imbalance of power. When you are confronted with the decision: bullying or banter? Think carefully about the power relationship between the parties. Has the person experiencing it said they don’t like it? Does it involve numerous people? Does it target an aspect of their appearance or personality?

Banter involves people with equal power, where there is no hurt involved and no intent to cause harm. In no way are we saying that people can’t make jokes but just be aware of the tipping balance.

That’s why this year’s Anti-Bullying Week theme is All Different, All Equal where we try to empower young people to celebrate what makes them and others different. Anti-Bullying Week this year is from 13th – 17th November. Find out more about how to get involved at the top of this page.

Find out more about the defintion of bullying and banter here.