A Question of Culture – bullying or just banter?

indexFor us here in the UK we have been reading and discussing an incident on a television program “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here”, where a contestant was believed to verbally bullied another member of the group. Now in his defence the person doing the alleged bullying stated it was just banter and that it was accepted between both parties that it was just that a bit of fun. However, the watching audience saw the incident differently. The cry of “bully” and abuse rang around the corridors of the media for at least 36 hours until another minor incident subsumed the short attention span. Though the incident raised an issue in the contemporary workplace between groups and individuals of what does constitutes abuse & bullying and what is just consigned to being banter. What is the cut off point between verbal jousting and causing offence? Hopefully exploring this cultural issue can shed some light on the moral maze we all seem to encounter at work and within organisations.

Having experienced may different working environments banter and joking can be fun, reduce stress and raise morale within the group but it can be difficult to recognise when harmless fun becomes bullying, victimisation or even discrimination. Personal jokes and banter, friendly insults and quips are often how we interact in the workplace, at social gatherings or when we meet up with our friends and family. Sometimes closer friendships and the degree of familiarity allow for insults or name calling to be exchanged, with lasting effects of feelings or upset. Clearly everyone is comfortable and shares the laughter and enjoyment.

The darker side of the banter questions can happen when a person is singled out to be the butt of repeated personal attention and cutting comments and then the banter can become harmful to the person concerned. It is clearly no longer fun and the line between banter and bullying or discrimination has been crossed. However, what is the tipping point pushing banter over into abuse and discrimination and subsequent personal isolation and upset.

It is difficult for employees to know and comprehend when the line is about to be crossed and have the confidence to tell colleagues that enough is enough.  Factory life (mainly male dominated) can be tough for the thin skinned. Sometimes personal differences will be highlighted with a nick name or term that describes the person that clearly identifies them to the group. Its usually not overly complementary so can be hard to come to terms with. Usually the shift team are bonded as a group and the ribald banter is part and parcel of your working life.  This environment is similar to male dominated dressing rooms in sport, it is this culture that the alleged celebrity bully comes from. Perhaps then exhibits a different tolerance to the banter than other groups?  There is a hierarchy and men occupy roles within the group. The banter is part of the motivation and bonding process to suggest although we can have some fun at each others expense we are a team. Its easy to make some lazy hypothesis to suggest its men that allow banter, experience in female dominated environments suggests otherwise.  The banter is there but in a different more subtle form. Perhaps more passive aggressive, less obvious but nevertheless still present within the group. Of course this is a generalisation and there always exceptions to the rule.

So In principle the bullying or banter question is about context and culture within the group and the organisation. When cultures collide i.e. a factory or dressing room toward families sitting in their armchairs at home & media hacks, then perceptions on the interaction change.  We formally accept different rules and expectations within different environments. Psychologically called attributions. A attribution is the process by which individuals explain the causes of behavior and events. So home life is different than being at work, out with friends or in the dressing room. Behaviour and language adapt to the different environment and cultural expectations. I am sure you speak to your friends differently to your line manager to your family? So the term bully is very difficult to define or attribute from a distance unless we understand that the people concerned consent to the interaction rule of engagement.

Tbe bullying and banter question is a moral maze. Measuring it by external standards through a politically correct lens will no doubt always veer toward bullying as these robust interactions do not appear polite or appropriate from a distance.  However we may need to take time to understand the different cultures we exist within and what rules apply and to whom before we make snap judgements. Understanding how we attribute events and behaviours with different groups will no doubt help us look behind the smoke and mirrors of society, social interactions and groups. Bulling cannot be tolerated but where do we draw the line for wholesome and group bonding banter? A question for us all to cogitate.

 

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