What DOES ‘banter’ in social media say about you?
It’s always been there, but recently I’ve noticed a few of the forums that I visit regularly seem to have begun to develop longer threads and, on closer inspection, much of their length is due to ‘banter’. This has the effect of drawing discussion on the original topic to a close.
A typical example was a perfectly sensible question posed by a novice user about the etiquette on the forum. Answers will all be subjective opinion as there are no definitions of what is and what isn’t acceptable there. Within two replies the thread has been taken over by two individuals joking about something completely different. In the case that prompted this article that banter also had a sexual undertone.
So what does ‘banter’ say about the people who do it?
The study of communication generally, obviously, crosses many disciplines, but because it usually has a purpose the starting point is often embedded in sociology. In this context, ‘banter’ is distinguished from ‘small talk’ in some important ways. Fairly typical such definitions would be:
“Small talk is a type of conversation where the topic is less important than the social purpose of achieving bonding between people or managing personal distance.”
“Banter, on the other hand, is non-serious conversation, usually between friends, which may rely on humour or in-jokes at the expense of those taking part. The purpose of banter may at first appear to be an offensive affront to the other person’s face. However, people engaging in such a conversation are often signaling that they are comfortable enough in each others’ company to be able to say such things without causing offense.”
Gender and small talk
There is an important gender-related difference in the propensity to use small-talk, which sociolinguist, Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don’t Understand, observed;
“For males, conversation is the way you negotiate your status in the group and keep people from pushing you around; you use talk to preserve your independence. Females, on the other hand, use conversation to negotiate closeness and intimacy; talk is the essence of intimacy, so being best friends means sitting and talking. For boys, activities, doing things together, are central. Just sitting and talking is not an essential part of friendship. They’re friends with the boys they do things with.”
In other words, males tend to use banter as a way of establishing their boundaries with another potentially aggressive male. It always takes one male to initiate this form of exchange. To do so, they need to feel sufficiently confident of their dominance in the pair for them to take the risk of saying something that would, under other circumstances, provoke an attack (even a physical one).
Banter and escalation to violence
Bear in mind, that many street fights, fueled by alcohol on a Saturday night, are initiated by this very primitive means of exchange. Male A (who has to believe that he has a chance of being the dominant male) tries it on, by saying something provocative to Male B. There are three responses that B can adopt; a neutral one in which they do not pick up the thread of the conversation but say something that distracts A onto a different topic, a submissive one in which they collude with A’s perception of his dominance, or an attempt to push the balance of dominance back in his favour – usually by upstaging A or by saying something even more provocative. And so the exchange goes on. Sometimes the violence escalates there and then; other times, the wounded party retreats only to return later intent on violence (often spurred on by the need to re-establish their dominance among the pack that they associate with).
Building intimacy and the ‘art’ of seduction
For women, as the purpose of the ‘small talk’ is to build intimacy and connection, displaying overtly aggressive behaviour simply wouldn’t work. Instead, most begin an exchange with a mild demonstration of their current state of weakness – describing their vulnerability in a situation, an introverted mood, medical condition, or subordinated relationship at work, for example. The response they are looking for is one of empathy – demonstrated to them not in the psychotherapeutic manner but, as friends might, by acknowledging their situation and then the friend sharing something of a similar nature that they too have experienced. The common experience builds bonds. Solutions and advice are not offered – certainly not directly.
In a mixed gender environment, these two behavioural styles reinforce separation. The rest of the males will rarely expose themselves to potentially escalating violence – they will simply stand back and watch (with differing degrees of intensity depending on their own sense of social (in)security. Again, depending of the context, the females will either await the outcome (if this is part of their mate selection process) or withdraw to their own enclave. The impact of banter on some women, whether simply through observing two males engaged in it, or on submissive/dominant female sexual identities, is why some books on the “art of seduction” mention its use as a strategy for predatory males.
Banter as displacement behaviour for emotional pain
The use of banter in some contexts is a displacement activity – avoiding discussion of more emotionally painful topics. A classic example of this was the style of communication developed among Army officers, especially in the First World War, and perpetuated by some officers even today. In the 1970s, Monty Python even had a sketch based on RAF banter (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rKYL0tW-Ek). The sketch also illustrates how banter can be used to maintain social status and is a key weapon in the armoury of bullies.
Banter, social class, education and bullying
Banter takes different forms among different strata of society and rarely works across the strata, instead the different styles are used to reinforce the group separation and to subjugate the other group. So a public school educated boy will rarely engage in banter with others unless among a group of similarly educated individuals rounding on someone of ‘lesser’ class. Equally someone from an ethnically-derived culture, may use their ‘patois’, to reinforce their supremacy over people in authority. Cross cultural exchanges are another rich source of material for comic scripts as this Armstrong and Miller sketch shows (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwNQf08Kxsw).
Banter and social media
Transfer these kinds of exchange to a social media forum, such as ecademy or facebook. While there are some, slightly radicalised forums where banter of this kind is the norm, most business and mainstream social media see it occasionally, may tolerate it, but it is far from commonplace. What leads someone to use it, especially frequently, in their postings?
Unless there is some significantly different mechanism at play, the individuals using it are suffering from the same desperate struggle as their ‘offline’ counterparts – an unsatisfied infantile id, trying to avoid the social mores imposed by the super-ego. In the online world, people who might never engage in such exchanges face-to-face, feel less threat from the super-ego, suffer less constraint from a sense of conscience, and are happy to benefit from the instant gratification that their fleeting ability to gain the upper hand in an exchange of banter gives them.
So why does the online environment disempower the super-ego?
Much of the power in banter lies in being able to see the effect it has. In the offline world, where such exchanges are usually transmitted by voice and with a gamut of body language to witness the effect is easy to see. Online, where we are largely restricted to the printed word it is far harder. Conversely, online words last into perpetuity whereas the fleeting aside of the physical world has constantly to be reinforced. I suspect, therefore, that it is the lack of other clues that allows the individual to delude themselves into believing that the recipient of their challenge is tolerant of it and also not to detect the effect it has on the larger audience of silent observers. It is this lack of feedback that removes the power of the super-ego.
Is this a growing trend or one that is shifting?
Fortunately, I have some faith that this is actually a trend that is diminishing in most settings. Twenty years ago, discussion forums were rife with this kind of unmediated behaviour. It was precisely this that put many people off accessing them for perfectly legitimate reasons. Certainly, I can recall at least a couple of forums where you would expect people to be tolerant of one another and sufficiently educated to not feel the need to resort to what is, after all, very primitive behaviour. Yet, in both cases one or two individuals persistent failure to consider the impact of their language on others led to myself, and I’m sure others, leaving them permanently.
My sense is that with the massive growth in the use of these media, especially ones operating across wider cultural and social boundaries, and with standards of behaviour reinforced by the communities themselves, we are already seeing this pattern of banter diminishing and its practitioners slowly being ostracised by the other members who want to get on with their real purpose in socialising.
One well-known commentator on social media is Penny Power, one of the founders of ecademy. She applies an adage “Know Me, Like Me, Follow Me“. In a business context, that might be extended to “Know Me, Like Me, Follow Me, Promote Me”. It’s very hard to like, follow or promote someone who projects the personality of a needy infant.
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