Control and Desire: Identity Formation through Teasing among Gay Men and Lesbians

By Heisterkamp, Brian L.; Alberts, Jess K. | Communication Studies, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Control and Desire: Identity Formation through Teasing among Gay Men and Lesbians


Heisterkamp, Brian L., Alberts, Jess K., Communication Studies


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At first glance, the study of humor may seem of little importance, even frivolous. However, humor is a pervasive and important communication act. It is present during most human interactions (Norrick, 1993), and it serves a number of important purposes. For example, it can help people achieve a variety of interpersonal goals, including building rapport (Norrick, 1993), increasing social attractiveness (McGhee, 1979), decreasing social distance (Graham, 1995), and alleviating group tensions (Norrick, 1993).

In addition, humor is a significant contributor to the process by which people make judgments about their interpersonal relationships. It helps them to reduce relational uncertainty about others (Graham, 1995). That is, people reveal considerable knowledge about what they value, how they see themselves, and how they view others through the jokes and teases they perform and the ones they find amusing. Thus, humor permits people to present their worldview in a non-threatening way and allows them to seek approval of their opinions (Norrick, 1993).

Humor also serves to enhance interpersonal relationships. Frequently the enactment of humor is an interactive event and laughing together creates rapport among its participants. One type of humor which is interactive by design is teasing. Teasing is a specific form of conversational humor which arises out of on-going interaction. Although jokes usually are self-contained stories which may be told to a variety of people in numerous settings, teases are conversational acts that exploit events, behaviors, and comments that occur "in the moment."

Teasing is an important communicative phenomenon because of the functions it can serve during interaction. Shutz (1958) has identified three primary interpersonal needs: inclusion, affection, and control. He argued that individuals need to feel part of a larger group, need to believe that others like them, and need to be able to influence others. Teasing is well suited to serving these interpersonal needs. First, teases can help create a sense of inclusion through shared laughter, by agreement about what is laughable, or through identifying the tease recipients as being "one of us." Second, teases can serve to express affection, and the very act of teasing can indicate both liking and inclusion. Third, teasing can be used to control others, by punishing with an aggressive tease or by influencing perceptions of people and events. Finally, teasing can attempt to control how the self and others are viewed-by creating identities for both.

The word tease derives from the Anglo-Saxon word taesan, which means to tear or pull to pieces, to cut at something roughly (as in the preparation of wool) (Pawluck, 1989). However, teasing involves not just a cutting down; it also involves an element of play. Current definitions of teasing capture these dual elements. For example, Drew (1987) defines teases as "mocking but playful jibes" (p. 219), and Eisenberg (1986) refers to them as "conversational sequence(s) that open as a mock challenge, insult, or threat" (p. 184). Boxer and Cortes-Conde (1997) explain that teasing is an instance of conversational joking that moves along a continuum from bonding to nipping to biting. Teasing is differentiated from disparagement humor in that teasing is often less aggressive. Disparagement humor is defined as "humorous material in which one party is victimized, belittled, or suffers some misfortune or act of aggression" (Hobden & Olson, 1994, p. 239). Additionally, disparagement humor involves establishing the aggressor as superior to the victim (Wicker, Barron, & Willis, 1980), an element typically not found in teasing.

The playful aspect of a tease is important, because it is this aspect of the tease that transforms it from an insult into humor. In addition, playful presentations of serious acts do not usually result in the same (often negative) consequences which typically follow their social performance (Bateson, 1972; Pawluck, 1989).

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