What is banter? The difference between banter and bullying

Sure, banter can be harmless fun, but it can also be pretty harmful. Sometimes when you think you’re in on the joke, it could really be at your expense. So what is banter, and what's the difference between banter and bullying? We totally understand that it can be hard to tell the difference, especially when most of our communication is done online. Fear not, The Mix is here to help.

A group of friends is eating pizza. They are having banter. This is a wide-angle image.

“It’s just witty banter mate. Can’t you take a joke?”

Urgh, we’ve all heard that one before. Whether you’ve been on the receiving end of offensive ‘banter’ or you’ve been made to feel uncomfortable by disrespectful comments about other people, it’s important to stand up for yourself and what you believe in. We’re here to help you navigate the murky world of banter.

What is banter?

Banter can be harmless. Perhaps a mate makes a light-hearted joke about how long it takes you to get ready for a night out or you mock-argue about who supports the best football team. This form of witty banter is often affectionate and a sign that someone feels comfortable around you.

The difference between banter and bullying

So now that we’ve addressed the question ‘What is banter?’ it’s time to clarify what isn’t. If banter is relentless, one-sided, particularly personal or outright nasty, that’s when it turns into bullying. Those people dishing out the banter will often defend their comments by telling you that you’re being overly sensitive or making a ‘big deal’ out of nothing. But if something makes you feel uncomfortable, respect that feeling by doing something about it. Also, if you’re friends with someone who turns things around on you, you might want to reevaluate that friendship. 

How to deal with ‘Banter’

Bullying and emotional abuse are never ok. Hopefully we’ve cleared up the difference between banter and bullying but you also need to know how to deal with the latter. Here are some things you can do as an alternative to awkwardly laughing off nasty comments:

  • If the banterer (try saying that 10 times fast) in question is your mate, try talking to them. Tell them straight up you don’t find the comments they’re making funny and you wish they’d stop. If they respond by saying you’re sensitive or, even worse, by telling you to “man up”, speak to them. Try something like “if you’re my mate, you’ll respect the way I feel and you’ll stop.” Someone who turns things around on you like this is not a good mate. Read more about toxic masculinity and why we need to stop saying ‘man up’ here.
  • Don’t keep it to yourself. By doing so, your banter bully is getting away with harassment. If you’re at school, try telling a teacher or someone else in a position of authority. Working might be a different scenario, but still try telling your boss or HR.
  • If the unwanted banter is taking place online, keep a record of what is being said. This can be used to prove that the banter is more than just a joke.
  • If the banter relates to the colour of your skin, your religion or your sexual orientation this could be considered a hate crime by law. For more advice on this topic, read our article on how to deal with hate crime.

Our final piece of advice is to read our article on building self-esteem and don’t let bad banter tear you down. You don’t deserve to feel uncomfortable or hurt by these comments.

Offensive online banter and bullying

The other kind of banter you may have come across – usually on private messaging platforms like WhatsApp – is the sharing of intentionally offensive ‘banter’ like violent videos, racist comments, jokes about rape and just downright problematic shit. Because these groups aren’t IRL, they become a safe space for people to say what they like with the intention of shocking. Truth is, the only thing they’re shocking is your belief in them as a good person.

How to handle it

Dodgy chat groups are often defended as being ‘harmless banter’ but in reality they’re cruel and they perpetuate phobic attitudes. If you’re thinking about sharing offensive content online or you’re in a group where other people are doing it, consider this…

  • Don’t feel the pressure to join in just because your mates do it. It’s far stronger (and cooler) to stand up for your values. People will respect you for doing this (even if your mates don’t initially.) A true friend isn’t someone who turns things around on you. So if they start using your opting out as an excuse to make fun of you, drop ‘em faster than a hot jacket potato.
  • Before making a sexist, racist or ableist joke, pause. Imagine sending or saying these things to your mum, a person of colour or someone with a disability. How does that make you feel? If you wouldn’t say it to them, you probably shouldn’t say it at all, whether it’s on a phone call or a text.
  • Know the consequences of the comments you’re making. It’s becoming more common for hateful chat groups to be exposed and as a result, people have lost their jobs, been kicked out of university and gotten into sticky situations with the law.
  • If you’re offended by something you’ve seen online, report it to the social platform you’ve seen it on and, even if you haven’t, read our article on how to stay safe online just for good measure.

Next Steps

  • Being Mankind is a project creating conversations about the unique issues that men and boys face in the 21st Century.
  • BullyingUK offers advice and support to victims of bullying. Call on 0808 800 2222.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.

By Olivia Capadose

Updated on 10-Oct-2021