Banter. It’s an interesting word, because as Dru was saying, it sounds fun but there can be a stone inside the snowball, a spider in the cup.
However, this shouldn’t mean a ban on days of snowballing and wine. Banter can be a force for good; it can be funny, and even enriching. There’s just the delicate matter of working out when this applies, a task that isn’t helped by the huge umbrella word that ‘banter’ has become.
In Becoming Drusilla we went over some of this territory –
‘‘Banter’ among men is as precious as ‘horseplay’, highly valued, staunchly excused. Both words cover a huge range of possible behaviours, a few sharp words or a knuckle on the skull communicating anything from a display of genuine affection to deliberate and malicious persecution. It’s only banter, for Christ’s sake.’ p.261
Those wishing to excuse banter are using the word in the sense of ‘teasing’. I agree with the sentiment. Show me someone who can’t be teased and I’ll line up the adjectives like a firing-squad: humourless, pompous, self-important, insecure. Teasing is a version of fiction, and therefore requires openness to lateral thinking : it involves exaggeration and selection for effect.
Whether the teasing itself is acceptable or not depends on the effect intended. At its best, in a Billy Wilder comedy or at Midsomer Norton RUFC (1998-2003, or any sports team that isn’t dysfunctional), banter is healthy and desirable because it is essentially a means of displaying affection. Not a direct means, admittedly, which may explain why in the UK the currency of banter is inflated.
When banter malfunctions, the fault lies in the absence of affection. In its mildest form, this accounts for the embarrassment generated by insincere teasing in, say, marital sitcoms (see any episode of Episodes) Banter without affection rings hollow. I’ve heard football chants (Ooh ahh, you’re shit) described as banter. No affection, no excuse.
So this is the bantometer that everyone should use to know whether they’re on the light or dark side of teasing. Is there genuine affection towards the person you wish to tease, and who is the subject of your banter? If there is, knock yourself out.
Anything else, find another word for what you’re doing. It will probably not be a very constructive word, unless that word is ‘satire’.