Candy Goodwin on Teasing

Marjorie Harness “Candy” Goodwin, author of a recent ethnography of girls on a playground, joins our growing pool of Savage Minds “occasional contributors” with the following response to a recent NY Times Magazine article, “In Defense of Teasing.”

Dacher Keltner in his recent article on teasing in the New York Times magazine argues that “in seeking to protect our children from bullying and aggression, we risk depriving them of a most remarkable form of social exchange.” While ritual insult or trash talking among friends (as Labov told us long ago) can serve important functions by communicating complaints about someone in a playful and indirect way, there is often a murky line between ritual and personal insult. As Donna Eder (in her book School Talk) has alerted us, whereas the intent of the actor of a tease may be friendly, a recipient may interpret it as a hurtful insult, and not necessarily show the pain. Jaana Juvonen, my colleague in psychology at UCLA, who has done extensive research on bullying among elementary school and middle school children (see for example her book Peer Harassment in School: The Plight of the Vulnerable and Victimized edited by Juvonen and Sandra Graham, feels that (counter Keltner) there is not any easy way to distinguish teasing from bullying, which includes forms of social aggression.

In my own work among elementary school children (The Hidden Life of Girls) in California over a three-year period I also find that what begins as playful may very quickly become harmful. A working class girl who initiates playful ritual insult sequence (“When you grow up you gonna be working at Pick and Save”) might receive in return from girls in a mostly middle class clique hurtful personal insult, alluding to the target’s status as working class, not being able to afford braces, jobless in the future, rejected by everyone, including the gutters, and without friends. When multiple members of a clique ratify a particular version of reality of this sort that is hurtful we come face to face with forms of everyday micro-aggressions that often go unnoticed in “progressive” schools – schools where there are routine exercises is sorting out blue and brown eyed individuals in exercises that promote notions of fairness to all ethnic groups, but never attention to “the hidden injuries of social class.” The girls I studied routinely excluded a working class African American girl they called a “tag-along” and insulted her to her face so that by the end of sixth grade she was often eating alone on the playground during lunchtime. What may be thought to be teasing by some group members, may be experienced as hurtful by the target. The form of recipient response is critical to how we view an activity as either teasing or bullying.

4 thoughts on “Candy Goodwin on Teasing

  1. Thanks for that contribution, Candy. I’d read that editorial when it first came out and there were a lot of things that irritated me about it but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what. I think that mainly it was the simplistic portrayal of some golden era of happy, good-natured teasing that is the way that boys and girls show they like each other, now supplanted by an era of ominous adult surveillance. What about Lord of the Flies? 😉

    Candy, you should offer the NYT a response editorial. I bet they’d jump at it, since that editorial was one of the most widely e-mailed for a few days, and you’ve got academic credibility with a book on the topic.

  2. Prof. Goodwin, I can’t avoid thinking about this legalistically. Your formulation removes intent as a necessary element of teasing and includes a hurtful ([[state?]of mind?]). What elements do constitute an act of teasing in your formulation? For example, had the girls you studied have told the African-American student in a dispassionate manner that they did not want to spend time in her company it might well have been quite hurtful to her, but would it have been an act of teasing?

  3. I have similar questions as MTBradley above. Why is it helpful to draw a line between teasing and bullying? And, what bothers me more, why is there an assumption that rituals can not be hurtful?

  4. I didn’t find either the article nor analysis enlightening – sorry. Both seemed to state the obvious.

    The subject, however, is an interesting one. One thing that’s always interested me is humor, what some say is a key to understanding Others. To reduce everything to a subjectivist pov is understandable, but once again places the onus (understanding, pain, choosing to ignore it and “brush it off one’s shoulder”…) not to mention the spotlight upon the recipient.

    By example, this is the value of people like Cesaire and Fanon, who shine a light on the psychology of the colonizer.

    In the end, it’s much easier for school shrinks to deal with “hurt kids” via namby pamby shrink sessions than to get at the root of why dominant kids bully and tease. The latter are equally doomed in “the system,” via Ritalin, punishment or just plain ignorance such as incarceration.

    Both groups are expressions of a system – parents, schools, governments, medicine, academicians, and certainly not pundits such as anthropologists…- that have yet to discover what it is that kids need to be well-adjusted.

Comments are closed.