Ways To Playfully Tease People

Friends, family, and colleagues often poke fun at each other in a light, friendly way. Some people don't think they're good at this kind of banter, and worry it makes them seem boring or uptight. Women joke around too, but there's more of a stereotype that guy buddies bust each other's chops, so men can get extra down on themselves if they feel like they can't keep up in that department.

To narrow the issue down, someone may not be good at initiating their own jokes. They either have no idea what they could say to good-naturedly rib someone, or they try, but their attempts don't land or come across as a bit rude. They get a little envious when they see their friends effortlessly poking fun at each other and getting laughs.

This article will go into ways to come up with your own playful remarks. Check out this related piece for advice on how to banter back when someone affectionately teases you first. Or click here if their "joke" had a mean undertone and you want to address it in a more serious way.

Here's my usual disclaimer for conversation sub-skills like joking around or being a good storyteller: They're nice to know, but not essential to have a good social life. There are lots of ways to be enjoyable to talk to. If you think you could be better at bantering, by all means work on it, but don't think you're automatically dull and unlikable if you're not great at it.

Bantering principles

Here few things to keep in mind as think about who to poke fun at:

Use a friendly delivery

This article is about how to playfully joke with people, not cut them down with a barbed, passive-aggressive insult. That means you should obviously say your lines in a friendly, light-hearted way. Use a joking, spirited tone of voice. Have a friendly expression on your face. Be careful about using a dry, subtly sarcastic delivery. Unless someone already knows to expect that kind of humor from you they might misread it as being insulting.

At least at first, lean toward teasing people about minor quirks that are under their control

Naturally this isn't a hard and fast rule. Some close friends tease each other in incredibly dark, cutting ways about their deepest insecurities and traumas. But not everyone can handle it, and friends who banter like that built up to that relationship.

Generally it's safer to poke fun at people about smaller foibles and things they choose to do. For example, bugging a friend about how they baby talk to their cat or always mispronounce a certain word. There's still a chance a fairly harmless joke will rub something the wrong way, but you're usually in safe, affable territory.

Unless you have a good sense it will be okay, stay clear of joking about things people can't easily control and are often sensitive about, like their physical features, weight, being single, earning a lower income, big failures, and so on. (On a more practical note, if you tease someone about an obvious part of their appearance, like their frizzy hair or freckles, odds are they've been hearing jokes about it their whole life. Unless your line's got a really clever, fresh angle you'll seem unoriginal and lazy.)

Spread your jokes around

Even if you mean nothing bad by it, if you mostly just tease one person it can make it seem like you're singling them out to pick on, or you have some sort of problem with them. Even if you've got that one quirky friend or co-worker who often sets themselves up to be teased, don't rag on them excessively.

Be aware of power dynamics

Aside from using the wrong kind of delivery, the other thing that can make a well-intentioned playful joke come across as rude is when there's a difference in power between you and the recipient.

Things won't always go wrong, but if you're higher-status or have some sort of power over someone, they may take your teasing remark the wrong way and think you're picking on them. Or they might be too intimidated to respond, or not think it's appropriate. For example:

On the other hand, you can seem passive-aggressive if you tease someone too much about a trait where they have an advantage over you. For example, your friend is from an upper-middle class background, and you didn't have much money growing up, and you constantly make digs at them about how they're a spoiled rich kid. The rare comment about it is fine, but if you keep bringing it up it looks like you can't let go of your resentment, and are taking it out on them under the guise of being humorous.

If you do accidentally offend someone give a quick, straightforward apology

Even if you were just kidding around, you might unintentionally joke about someone's sore spot, or just catch them in a bad mood. If that happens, own up to it and quickly apologize, then move on. For example, "Sorry if I came off as rude. I was joking. I didn't mean to take it too far." It's important to have a sincere tone. You don't want to seem dismissive or that you're rolling your eyes at how easily wounded they are. Especially don't insist they're too sensitive or don't know how to take a joke. That's the kind of thing people say when they meant to be hurtful, but are claiming they were "just joking" as cover.

Article continues below...

General ways to tease people

There are tons of ways to good-naturedly tease someone. Here's a selection of examples based on two situations. Here's another one of my common disclaimers: Try to look past whether you personally find each joke funny, or if you could imagine yourself saying them. Focus on the broad idea it's demonstrating.

Also, while the examples below may give you some ideas, bantering doesn't lend itself to memorizing a few canned lines. As I said, there are just too many ways to joke about someone. It's impossible to prepare for it all in advance. You have to hone your own sense of humor through trial and error.

Situation #1: You're eating with a friend at a Thai restaurant and they're having trouble using their chopsticks

Situation #2: A coworker told you they like a movie that's widely considered to be bad

(Again, imagine these all delivered in a playful, light-hearted tone. Of course you're going to look like a snobby jerk if you say them in a patronizing, condescending way.)

As I keep saying, there are lots and lots of ways to tease someone. There are even tons of ways to tweak the wording or delivery of a single joke. There's no way a quick article can catalog every method you could ever use to bust someone's balls. Though I hope the examples are enough to get your gears turning.

And again, if someone teases you first, this article has some ideas:

Ways To Playfully Respond To Teasing, Bantering Remarks