How to banter (without being a nasty little prick)

This is one of those posts I can’t believe needs writing. Moving in the social circles I do, among intelligent and sensitive people, it’s easy to forget that unpleasant, obnoxious individuals exist in the real world rather than merely popping up in the pages of the Daily Mail.

I banter with my wonderful, intelligent, friends, and it is a hoot. Banter is fun, it’s lively, it’s an art form in and of itself. Outside of this bubble, though, it is something else. It’s used as nothing more than a word to add a veneer of acceptability to bullying, to oppression, to being a witless tosspot who fancies hurling a bit of abuse around without being called out on it. This is most obvious in the recent Unilad fiasco, where banter translates as threats of rape and violence for its braying mob of fans, though it has also been used as an excuse to cover for unacceptable language from pointless oxygen-bogarts Jeremy Clarkson and Ricky Gervais, to name but a few.

And it’s not on. Were banter-masters Oscar Wilde or Shakespeare alive today, they would wince at the sorry state of their art form. It’s time to reclaim banter. It’s time to kill the popular perception of banter as nothing more than bullying.

What is banter?

Numerous dictionary definitions of banter exist, and all fall on the same two crucial characteristics. Surprisingly, UrbanDictionary manages to sum up the meaning of banter rather well.

Supple term used to describe activities or chat that is playful, intelligent and original.

Banter is intelligent. It is witty wordplay, a game of verbal jousting. Banter is also playful: it is harmless, fun and pleasant. Vast swathes of the “banter” that the gaping chancres of lad culture struggle to preserve fall completely short of both of these goals.

Banter and wit

Most of the population believe they are more intelligent than everyone else. Statistically, almost half of them must be wrong in varying degrees of magnitude. It is due to this effect that grunting nincompoops tend to believe that their banter is worthy of Shakespeare himself. Chances are, you are nowhere near that level of greatness. You would probably find your arse intellectually handed to you by Stephen Fry and wander off thinking you had won, because that’s how your brain is set up.

Be aware of this; be wise to the fact you are probably not as clever as you think you are. You will be less likely to defend your banter tooth and nail if you consider every word to pour from your mouth to be a fecund fountain of foetid faeces.

A rather useful heuristic for checking if your banter is in the slightest bit witty is to imagine a six year-old child saying it. If you are faced with an amusing mental image of a precocious child saying something incongruous, then you might be on to something. If that hypothetical child sounds right at home speaking what you believe to be a blistering comeback, you probably lack the art of banter and should accept defeat.

Playing safely

The point of play is that it is fun for all involved. In some scenarios, there can be a fine line between play and abuse, wherein one person is having fun while the other is not. Banter is one such scenario. Sex is another. We can learn rather a lot from how to play safely in a sexual context and apply these insights to our banter.

The key thing here is enthusiastic consent from all parties. Some people don’t like to banter. This is fine, and you shouldn’t inflict it on them: it doesn’t mean they lack a sense of humour. For those that do, some topics are likely to be off-limits. If your verbal sparring partner appears to be upset by one of your remarks, apologise. Again, they do not lack a sense of humour. You (probably) unintentionally upset them, and most decent human beings do not revel in hurting others.

In short, exercise sensitivity and don’t be a cunt. I cannot believe there are people out there who do not understand this very simple matter.

Topics to avoid

Let us remember that humour hinges on something unexpected. It is therefore completely unacceptable to drag everyday oppression into your banter. Avoid misogyny, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia and class hatred, for example. People from oppressed groups experience derogatory language and treatment throughout their lives. It ceases to be funny fairly quickly.

In a few select instances, it may be all right to use such topics in your banter. In general, it tends to go down better when your jests are about oppression itself rather than the colour of your banter partner’s skin or their genitals, e.g. Ultimately, make sure it is all right with your banter-buddy. If it is not, then, once again, they are not at fault.

Public banter

The internet age has pulled banter from the parlours and pubs into the public domain. Other people are now party to your banter. Your banter may not take the form of a conversation at all, but a piece of writing. Even the conversations are visible if you are bantering through Facebook or Twitter. In this case, be super-mindful of all of the above. Perhaps the person you are tweeting at doesn’t mind you joking about rape. This does not mean that the whole world doesn’t mind you joking about rape: you may be called out on this by a complete stranger.

Once again, don’t be a dick. It is not their fault for being offended. Take this criticism with good grace.

Banter is an art, and it is one I would like to see survive. By not acting like a prick and by exercising intelligence, banter can be saved.

4 thoughts on “How to banter (without being a nasty little prick)”

  1. I simply wish to say that I for one delight in the game of banter and the exchanging of blows, as it were, though my style of play is certainly not for everyone. Shakespeare’s comedies delight me, and I tend to laugh at irony without exception. There is an edge, and sometimes a sarcasm, to my wit that is too bitter for some. Here I should say that I by no means discount the gentler banter in which polite society engages, and am quite capable of the more delicate repartee, but I find that a bit of oneupmanship engages my mind far more than the softer stuff in which a group of ladies might partake. In short, I like a bit of challenge, and meticulously polite conversation, however quick and witty, does not often challenge my mind. I do hope I cause no offense, and that I don’t come across as barbaric. I write myself, but never thought of writing a discourse on the subject of discourse. Actually, I’ve probably written quite enough already. If you make it this far, congratulations! You might be able to bear me company for five minutes together. If you’d like to look me up, try. You’ll find all my contact info there if it isn’t here. I mention this option only because I’m always looking for intellectually interesting people, and you seem like such a one. If, on the other hand, you find yourself thinking that I’m pretentious and self important, may I say that you are mostly wrong on both counts, and that you may, with the greatest respect, stuff such sentiments in the place where the sun shineth not. Apologies for the verbosity of this comment. It turned out rather to be a response than a comment, indeed. I do hope you don’t discount a more competitive banter on occasion, and that your social circles remain unbroken. All the best!

  2. I’m so glad you wrote this!

    I didn’t grow up in the UK and banter does not come naturally to me (my native language does not even have a word for it) and even though I’ve lived here over ten years I still often end up in situations where I either fall dead silent and don’t know why the person would say such a mean thing to me, or I get offended and when I do the other person will say “It was just a joke!”, or my personal pet peeve “I was just being ironic!”. Well, as far as I’m concerned a joke is funny for everyone involved, not just the person saying it, if it isn’t it is not a joke. And don’t even get me started on the misconception of the word “irony”!
    But somehow I’m always the one made to be feel like a bore and “Can’t you take a joke?” Yes, I can! If it’s funny! If yr gonna do it with an insult you gotta be very witty and incredibly good with the delivery to make it funny.

    I ended up on this page because I’m looking for ways to “learn” how to banter, as I am intersted in all forms of communication and aspects of the culture I live in and so I can get over the social phobia I’ve developed since I feel this constant damand to always have a lighthearted, witty comeback for everything because despite being easily amused and reasonably intelligent, witty combacks just doesn’t come natural to me.

    As far as I’m concerned humour is one of the highest forms of intelligence and being quickwitted and funny something that approaches genius. Sadly, my own lack of this ability, possibly stemming from growing up somewhere where it’s not a part of everyday interactions and being surrounded mainly by academics, has left me socially phobic because I freeze up and don’t know how to do it even with kindly banter and then it just gets awkward for both me and the person who has tried to get the banter going. It should be noted that even though my English is good and my vocabulary extensive it takes that split second longer to connect the dots and even blurt out common responses. (I never know how to respond to “Alright?” when said as a kind of greeting in passing for example.) It’s also incredibly hard to get the precisely right intonation and tone of voice which is crucial for banter to be witty, not falling flat or being plain insulting.

    But I digress. I did not mean for this to be an essay of a forigners plight with lack of natural banter ability.

    I really just wanted to say I was delighted to find this article because it put my own feelings about the variations of what falls under the banner of banter into words. Whenever I try to breach the subject with the people I know who are capable of bantering easily (‘cos they’ve practiced since kindergarten), who can do both witty intelligent banter AND crude insulting “We’re such-good-mates-we-call-each-other-c*nts” banter, they always judge me as “Taking things too seriously” and that “I just don’t understand British culture” when I don’t find the insulting kind (the most common form it seems, which really doesn’t take much intelligence at all just a vast vocabulary of rude words said fast) funny.

    At least I don’t feel so alone now that I’ve read that I’m not the only one in the country with this point of view.

    I wish I came across people like you in real life.

    Thank you stavvers!

  3. “People from oppressed groups experience derogatory language and treatment throughout their lives. It ceases to be funny fairly quickly.”
    Thank you!! It’s amazing how these morons on TV think they are funny can they can say offensive things. If that’s all it was, everyone can do that.

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