December 6, 2008


In Defense of Teasing (DACHER KELTNER, 12/06/08, NY Times)

In rejecting teasing, we may be losing something vital and necessary to our identity as the most playful of species.

A few hundred years ago, teasing was anything but taboo. Jesters and fools enjoyed high status. With their sharp-tongued mockery, outlandish garb and entertaining pranks, they highlighted the absurdities of all that was held sacred, from newborns and newlyweds to kings, queens and leaders of the church. In the tradition of the jester or the fool lies the essence of what a tease is — a playfully provocative mode of commentary.

But attempts to define the nature of that commentary can be difficult, not least because language itself gets in the way. We may use “teasing” to refer to the affectionate banter of middle-school friends, to the offensive passes of impulsive bosses and to the language of heart-palpitating flirtation, to humiliation that scars psyches (harsh teasing about obesity can damage a child’s sense of self for years) and to the repartee that creates a peaceful space between siblings. It is necessary to look at how we use language — especially at how we deliver our spoken words — to get at what teasing actually is.

The answer can be found, paradoxically, in a classic study of politeness by Penelope Brown, a linguistics anthropologist, and Stephen Levinson, a cognitive anthropologist, which differentiates between “on-record” communication” and “off-record” communication. On-record communication is to be taken literally and follows the rules of what the philosopher Paul Grice described as “cooperative, direct speech”: what is said should be truthful, appropriately informative, on topic and clear. When doctors deliver prognoses about terminal illnesses or financial advisers announce the loss of family fortunes, they adhere to these rules like priests following Scripture.

Very often, though, we do not want our words to be taken too literally. When we speak in ways that risk offense, for example when we criticize a friend, we may add intentional vagueness or unnecessary circumlocutions. Say a friend proves to be too confrontational at a dinner party. To encourage greater civility, we might resort to indirect hints (“Say, did you read the latest by the Dalai Lama?”) or metaphor (“I guess sometimes you just need to blow off some steam”). These linguistic acts establish a new channel of communication — off-record communication — signaling that what is being said has an alternate meaning.

Teasing is just such an act of off-record communication: provocative commentary is shrouded in linguistic acts called “off-record markers” that suggest the commentary should not be taken literally. At the same time, teasing isn’t just goofing around. We tease to test bonds, and also to create them. To make it clear when we’re teasing, we use fleeting linguistic acts like alliteration, repetition, rhyming and, above all, exaggeration to signal that we don’t mean precisely what we’re saying. (“Playing the dozens,” a kind of ritualized teasing common in the inner city that is considered a precursor to rap, involves just this sort of rhyming: “Don’t talk about my mother ’cause you’ll make me mad/Don’t forget how many your mother had.”) We also often indicate we are teasing by going off-record with nonverbal gestures: elongated vowels and exaggerated pitch, mock expressions and the iconic wink, well-timed laughs and expressive caricatures. A whiny friend might be teased with a high-pitched imitation or a daughter might mock her obtuse father by mimicking his low-pitched voice. Preteens, sharp-tongued jesters that they are, tease their parents with exaggerated facial expressions of anger, disgust or fear, to satirize their guardians’ outdated moral indignation. Similarly, deadpan deliveries and asymmetrically raised eyebrows (Stephen Colbert), satirical smiles and edgy laughs (Jon Stewart) all signal that we don’t entirely mean what we say.

The language of teasing is intimately linked to the language of social behavior. Because teasing allows us to send messages in indirect, masked ways, it is an essential means of navigating our often-fraught social environments. In teasing, we become actors, taking on playful identities to manage the inevitable conflicts of living in social groups.

The Church can tolerate teasing because it has the comfort of truth. But it's so easy to expose the inanities that many believe in today that they have to oppose the kidding. Thus is all comedy now conservative.

It's why comedians who support Barack Obama are claiming that he provides no material. In fact, he's such a target rich environment that they could strip the emperor naked effortlessly.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 6, 2008 9:29 AM
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