Emotional content is all in the delivery, even when it is wordless
A little over a century ago when I was in college, six or eight of us would gather on bitterly cold Syracuse nights and play the board game Risk into the wee hours. Outside, the merciless midwinter wind tore at the no-name plastic wrap that served as our storm windows, and inside we chugged Schmidt’s – 89 cents a six pack – and teased and taunted each other just as mercilessly. It was the best of times. I had great affection for every one of those people around the Risk board, from Kamchatka to Irkutsk. I haven’t seen them for decades but I still hold them warmly in my heart.
I thought of this again recently when we threatened to give each other nicknames around the office. Good fun, but it lost steam before anyone had a moniker that stuck. You can do things in college that you can’t do at work, and teasing people is one of those things.
But it turns out affectionate teasing is a good thing, just as it seemed it was years ago during those endless and frigid central New York nights. Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, interviewed by Mary Hynes on CBC Radio’s Tapestry http://bit.ly/f84yvD, explains the enormous difference between teasing and bullying, and in this New York Times interview http://nyti.ms/fNbDCe he describes what we lose when we regulate playful teasing out of our lives. (Spoiler alert: we lose part of our humanity, part of our joy, even part of our connection to the animal kingdom, where teasing besides being play is also communication.)
Keltner’s book is “Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.” It covers a lot more territory about human nature, supporting his core thesis that humans are wired to be good.
Juxtapose that with the downside of teasing, and other types of relational aggression. When teasing is not accompanied by the facial and vocal cues that tell us it is affectionate, it becomes a toxic form of bullying. http://bit.ly/euAET0. Indeed it seems that the more “civilized” we become – the more we try to avoid or cover up conflict – the more it poisons our everyday communication. Consider the eyeroll – a subtle gesture that wordlessly undermines and assaults the person at whom it is directed.
Or the freezeout. Or gossip.
Compared to that, says Prof. Keltner, “teasing is a mode of play, no doubt with a sharp edge, in which we provoke to negotiate life’s ambiguities and conflicts. And it is essential to making us fully human.”
It’s also essential to a good night of global domination.