Bullying versus ‘banter’...

Written by: Martha Evans | Published:
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When does playful ‘joshing’ turn into something hurtful? And when does that become bullying? As planning begins for Anti-Bullying Week 2018, Martha Evans considers how teachers can tell the difference

Early on in my career I was confronted with a dilemma within a training session with volunteer sports coaches. At the session, I asked the group: “What is the difference between bullying and banter?”

The room went quiet until a very confident hand popped up at a table at the back of the room: “The difference is if I call you a bad name when I don’t know you, that’s bullying. But if I call my mate here (a sheepish looking man sat next to him started looking nervous) a fat *****, then that’s banter because he’s my mate.”

The room went silent and with it being one of the first training sessions I’d delivered, I had a choice. Do I challenge what he said and potentially make the embarrassment for his friend last even longer? Or, do I skip over it and pretend it didn’t happen? I’m ashamed to say, being relatively inexperienced, I skipped over it. But it stuck with me and I’ve repeatedly played back what I should have said since.

What I should have said was: “No, what you’ve done is change what might have been a joke between two friends by bringing it into a public sphere with a lot of people who don’t know your relationship or its context.”
It actually doesn’t matter whether the man thought what he said was just joking around. It was clear from his friend’s face that he was uncomfortable and hurt by it.

Banter is part of the reason why at the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA) we talk about the need for a shared understanding of bullying. In this incident, the power of the relationship between the two sports coaches shifted when the whole room was included in the “joke”. That doesn’t necessarily make it bullying. Bullying is hurtful, repetitive and intentional, as well as involving an imbalance of power.

When you have to assess the seriousness of an incident at school and whether or not something is bullying, think carefully about the power relationship between the children. Has the pupil experiencing it said that they don’t like it? Does it involve a number of children ganging up on an individual? Does it target an aspect of their appearance, who they are or their personality?

Banter involves people with equal power, where there is no hurt involved and no intent to cause harm. As soon as the power shifts or hurt is felt or intended, then our alarm bells should sound because it is moving towards something harmful and potentially towards bullying. This is not to say that we can’t make jokes but that we must all be aware of the way that power dynamics and context can affect the impact of our words and cause hurt to others.

Here are some tips developed with Inside Inclusion to help decide where behaviour sits between banter and bullying:

  • Does the behaviour contain the four elements of bullying? Is it intentional, hurtful, repetitive, and involving a power imbalance?
  • Just because “banter” doesn’t constitute all the elements of bullying doesn’t mean it’s acceptable – the more elements it contains, the more harmful and unacceptable it is.
  • All offensive, threatening, violent and abusive language and behaviour is always unacceptable, whether it meets the definition of bullying or not. This includes any negative language or behaviour referring to a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, i.e. age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex (gender), or sexual orientation.
  • Language and behaviour can have different meanings in different contexts. If you are unsure, ask what was meant.
  • Just because someone uses certain language to refer to themselves it doesn’t necessarily means it is acceptable, nor does it make it okay for others to use it.
  • Just because some people think something is banter or a joke it doesn’t mean that other people will, nor does it make it harmless.
  • People won’t always feel confident to speak up if they are offended by something. They might even go along with it so as not to draw attention to themselves.
  • Other people might be offended, even if they are not directly part of the conversation.

We asked anti-bullying practitioner John Khan to give us his best questions to use with pupils when thinking about bullying and banter:

  • How do you describe banter?
  • Can you give me some examples of banter?
  • When does banter turn into bullying?
  • How do we know in ourselves if we cross the line?
  • How might we know from someone’s reaction if we have “crossed a line” with them?
  • How might they be feeling or behaving at that point?
  • Do people use the term “banter” to disguise bullying?

This year’s Anti-Bullying Week is happening from November 12 to 16 and we are currently working with young people and teachers to decide the theme. As part of this work, more than 600 pupils have completed our survey.

More than 60 per cent of pupils said that they felt Anti-Bullying Week made their school better at dealing with bullying. They talked about wanting to discuss further the impact of bullying in schools and also needing to understand more about what motivates one person to bully another.

The response of pupils underlines that the words we use are powerful and can have a significant impact on others. We’re here to help schools understand where bullying begins and to tackle bullying in all its forms.

  • Martha Evans is national coordinator of the Anti-Bullying Alliance.

Further reading

Anti-Bullying Week 2018 runs from Monday to Friday, November 12 to 16. For more information on recognising bullying and for details about Anti-Bullying Week, you can join the Anti-Bullying Alliance’s free School and College Network at http://www.anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk/get-involved/school-and-college-network or visit
http://www.anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk/antibullyingweek


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