‘Only joking Sweetie’ – Banter or bullying? - Emerge UK
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‘Only joking Sweetie’ – Banter or bullying?

Over the last 5 years, we have coached senior women and run women’s programmes around the world. This has resulted in our model Elev8te, the 8 Traits of Successful Women, our development programme RISE and our Empowered Women’s Development App.  At the end of each programme, we collate impact statements and we will be sharing these alongside a series of tips for women.  If you would like to hear more tips then download our App now or contact us for details on the RISE programme.

Who doesn’t love a bit of witty banter in the workplace?  It’s funny, right? And if we don’t have some fun in the workplace then it’s a bit boring and sterile, right? Wrong. Sarcasm and banter are far more damaging than we think and it is something that women on our RISE programme frequently talk to us about.  At best it is patronising or demeaning, at worst it really derails their ability to perform and they lose confidence rapidly.

It might be as seemingly ‘innocent’ as someone calling you a ‘part-timer’ because you need to leave at 5.30 in the evening.  Perhaps it becomes a bit of an in-joke with the rest of the team (despite the fact that they have had a long lunch hour and spent significant time on the web), when they separate team members into ‘part-timers’ and those that stay late into the evening, heading to the pub at 7 pm because they don’t have to rush home. Despite the fact that those people who are called ‘part-timers’ laugh and banter back, justifying the fact that they haven’t even had a loo break all day, inside them it is often having a profound effect on them as they journey home, often causing them to wonder whether their co-workers don’t believe that they are pulling their weight. 

As the sarcasm progresses, they start to feel marginalised or sometimes excluded, even though they know that it is not something they can do anything about. So, why don’t they ask the people to stop, and be more respectful to them?  Well, have you ever tried to challenge someone who is using sarcasm with you?  The response is often “ooh, you are very sensitive today – I am just being funny/having a joke?”  This makes it really difficult to be able to respond as you are now being seen as the party pooper and someone who is super-sensitive. The response you really want to make is “well, who are having all the fun? Because it isn’t me!”

However, sometimes it can become more invasive and damaging, it might be an ‘in’ joke about your appearance, mannerisms, pronunciation or an event where you perhaps made an error or said something that you felt in hindsight was embarrassing – but people seem to love to rehash the occasion.  Again, it is really difficult to rebut comments like this, particularly if they have been the norm over a prolonged period. But the problem is that often people ‘label’ you and once you adopt a label it can be really hard to peel it off.  I remember as a child being labelled as clumsy and suddenly, I became clumsy.  I would enter a room and would expect that I would drop something or bump into something and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It wasn’t life-threatening, but it made me realise that when you label people in the workplace it could often lead to them underperforming. The brain is a very powerful tool and it is constantly translating information to re-programme neural pathways so a consistent and persistent negative message can result in some very faulty internal dialogue.

Even in this day and age, we still are hearing from significant amounts of women who are subject to being marginalised through behaviour that is unpleasant or demeaning.  I know that men also experience this but I am drawing experiences in this blog from the discussions we have had with the women on the RISE programme. Maybe it is the way they are spoken to at meetings (“can you just get me a coffee love?”), or perhaps it is the type of jokes that are bandied around the office even though people can see that you find them offensive. Maybe it is just being made to feel stupid because of the questions that you ask, to the extent that you start to feel nervous about asking about the simplest thing. The impact of any of these behaviours can be to make you feel so nervous that you start to overthink things, feel underconfident, question yourself and, worst-case scenario, feel so small that you are unable to operate effectively. If you have ever been exposed to this type of behaviour then you know how pervasive the destruction can be as you gradually lose every shred of confidence that you had.

So, is banter just joking or could it be construed as bullying? Well actually it could, and there have been many instances at an employment tribunal where people have cited banter and sarcasm as bullying – particularly where it has been repeated frequently in front of other people and definitely if you have asked the person to desist and they have continued with the behaviour. Within the law, bullying is described as any unwanted behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated degraded, humiliated or offended, and can be written or verbal. The difficulty is that what one person finds acceptable another person might find truly unpalatable.

So, what can we do about it? In my experience, people only use behaviour if they think they can get away with it and if no one ever challenges them. If you are a manager of a team, you should see it as your responsibility to be the guardian of the dynamics and team dialogue.  You need to be constantly watching to ensure that everyone is comfortable with any jokes or banter and sending a clear message to people about what behaviour is unacceptable.  If you are a colleague in the workplace, who is a bystander to this type of behaviour then perhaps you could check in with the person to see that they are OK, or even intervene – it can be done in a non-confrontational way by saying something such as “hey, that’s not funny”, so that the person knows that you are supportive of them, it could give them the strength to stand up for themselves.

If you are on the receiving end of this type of behaviour, finding a way to confront the person yourself can feel extremely daunting, but it is important to use neutral observations language and make a strong, assertive but non confrontational statement such as “I understand that you may have felt you were only joking at the meeting this morning, however, I felt it undermined my authority so I would prefer it if you didn’t make jokes at my expense”.

If that fails, most organisations have a good Employee Assistance Programme that you can call if you are concerned about any behaviour in the workplace or your HR department can advise and support you.

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