The Art of Teasing

Food for Thought

Nigel and Sharon were relentlessly teasing each other over dinner at the back of an Indonesian grocery store. Just as I thought the well of zingers had dried up, more started pouring out. I admired their resourcefulness.

My sense of humor also veers towards teasing and sarcasm. When my daughter was in kindergarten, I got roped into a bus trip with her. There were only a few other parents. On the way back, with the kids sitting around me, I played the mind game “Don’t think about the white elephant.” They were a mix of giggles and confused frowns. The teacher eventually put a stop to it, saying, “No teasing!” I shrunk down to the size of the kids around me. I had no idea teasing was considered a bad thing.

Humans can handle only so much excitement or boredom. We are constantly trying to achieve some level of homeostasis, like managing our body temperature. In this sense, teasing is a management strategy. In the middle of a conversation with my friend, I do not want to suddenly declare, “Dude, I love you!” My friend would feel awkward, which would require cooling down the tension to return to homeostasis.

If you are a bit more savvy, you use teasing, which is an expression of affection served on the rocks. In a similar way, flirting is an expression of sexual love served chilled. Sarcasm is also a way to cool down a potentially painful truth. Cynicism is where sarcasm becomes personal.

So, in my head, teasing is a good way to interact with kids because they are more vulnerable to extreme emotions. If this is wrong, I was probably the worst dad in the world.

Humor is always like walking a tightrope between two emotions (like an itch that is neither pain nor pleasure), which is why teasing, sarcasm, and flirting are generally funny. You have to be socially adept in order to situate yourself in the right place. If you go a step too far, things can explode. If you don’t go far enough, you look like a fool.

I was wondering if Sharon or Nigel would make a misstep, but they managed to stay in the right zone for the whole dinner. Bravo.