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Fun and jokes verses bullying behaviour

One of the most used excuses for explaining or justifying bullying behaviour is that it was just some harmless fun. "It was just a joke" or "we were all just having a bit of fun". So where is the line? How can you tell when behaviour crosses over and becomes bullying behaviour. This is difficult question to answer but here is some tips.
Barbara Coloroso's 2004 book The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander has some great advise on this subject. While it focuses on school bullying behaviour it is useful for other situations and offers some ways of telling the difference between playful teasing and bullying behaviour. The following list is what to look out for:

  • Both parties should be able to swap roles easily. If both are involved willingly then this might be okay but if there is a power difference or it is one sided then it is likely to be bullying behaviour.

  • Fun and jokes will still ensure that the "basic dignity" of the people involved is respected and maintained. There is no humiliation, harassment, cruel comments, bullying behaviour and putdowns which are disguised as jokes. The humour should "poke fun in a lighthearted, clever, and benign way" (Coloroso, 2004 p32) not try and reduce the targets self-esteem or self-worth.

  • Having fun should mean that all parties get to enjoy the interaction and have a laugh. Laughter should be with the target and not at the target.

  • This type of fun should only be a small part of the interaction that the people have. If it is the only or major way of interacting then there should be concerns that this is or could be becoming bullying behaviour.

  • When having fun the intention is not to hurt the other person. Any motive for the behaviour should be innocent rather than sinister. But it is difficult to judge the intent or motive of others and even if harm was intended, they will not normally admit to it. So when it comes to joking/bullying behaviour, intention is not an accurate way of considering the appropriateness of the behaviour. It is how the recipient feels about the behaviour that is important. While not intending to hurt someone you still can and this is bullying behaviour.

  • One away of showing intent is what happens if someone becomes upset or objects. When having fun the jokes and behaviour will stop if it upsets someone. If it continues then this does show intent to harm the target. If you are having some fun then when it goes to far the user will back off and apologise. But we need to be mindful that a cycle of "fun", target becomes upset, apologising is not being used. It would be suspicious if a target is continual upset only to receive an apology and then more of the same. There is no change in the bullying behaviour users behaviour despite the apology. What is really required is a change in the users behaviour not continual apologises.
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