Sticks & Stones: Part 4, Insult, Flirtation & Humor

The final research paper I recently presented with students was research conducted by Sarah Kratzer, Kristen Lewis, Brit'ny Spain and Annie Van Cleave.

The particular focus of this research was the use of insult as a form of flirtation. As we all know, teasing is a multifaceted communication strategy that plays off of multiple layers of meaning. Specifically, the overt content of our speech might be very different from the intentions behind our speech. We say one thing but mean another. In teasing, we generally say something mean but intend something nice. This discrepancy and incongruity gives teasing its humorous potential. When executed well and received well it is a witty form of communication.

But it often doesn't go well. The ambiguities of teasing make it prone to misunderstanding and abuse. Teasing and sarcastic comments can misfire. Further, we can use the ambiguity of teasing to avoid responsibility for our words. When we tease we can claim that "I didn't mean it" if our audience takes offense. This self-defense is an appeal to the two layers of teasing. We are claiming that our audience is taking us too literally and should be attending to the non-literal intent of the tease (the nice part). We are basically accusing the audience of not getting the joke. And yet, we might really have wanted to hurt the person. Our true intent really was at level one, the mean literal layer. So the nature of the tease allows us to both make our point, hurtfully so, while also disavowing any mean intent. We get to have our cake and eat it too. Teasing provides us cover.

This is why, the students and I reasoned, people might prefer to use teasing as a flirtation strategy. Although teasing is risky it does provide some cover and protection.

The goal of the research project was to assess the personality correlates of people who report using insults (teasing) as a flirtation strategy. Although the students examined a host of variables I'd just like to focus on three.

First, building off of Neu's analysis and the findings in our last post, we predicted that narcissists would be more likely to tease as a flirtation strategy. They may do this for two reasons. First, if an insult is a kind of dominance display (see last post) then it seems reasonable to expect that narcissists would be more likely to use insults as a communication and flirtation strategy. Second, as we noted above, insults might provide protection for the narcissist's ego if the romantic overture is rejected. The narcissist can play the "I didn't mean it" card. Interestingly, this protects the narcissist from a social shame but it can also function as a form of self-deception if the narcissist tries to convince himself that, in truth, he really wasn't interested in this person when, in point of fact, he was interested. Ah, the games we play in our head...

The second set of predictions focused on humor style. Specifically, researchers have distinguished between a variety of humor styles. The two we focused on were affiliative humor and aggressive humor. Affiliative humor is humor aimed at relationship enhancement. It is humor that brings people together. Aggressive humor is humor that functions as a form of power and dominance. It involves teasing, sarcasm, put-downs and generally laughing at people rather than with them. Our expectation was that aggressive humor styles would predict insult use as a flirtation strategy.

The final set of predictions focused on social distress and discomfort. We predicted that people might use teasing as a communication strategy when they feel anxious in social situations. Again, this might be due to the fact that insults provide cover and protection from social failure or rejection.

So what did we find? Generally speaking the predictions were confirmed. People who were more narcissistic, who had more aggressive humor styles and who were more distressed in social situations were the most likely to report that they used insults as a form of romantic flirtation.

I think these results are interesting in that they complement what we noted in the last post. Specifically, in the last post we noted how ego issues can make you more vulnerable to feeling insulted. In this post we note that ego issues can make us more prone to using insults.

In short, it's a prickly world. We are constantly offended by people in the world while, at the very same time, we lob our own insults, snarkiness and sarcasm into the mix. It's a cycle of abuse, shaming and put downs. And, sadly, much of this comes packaged as the Trojan Horse known as humor. It's a Trojan Horse that allows us to say one thing but mean another and then exploit that flexibility to hide our true intentions. We can be drive-by and hit-and-run offenders.

This research hits home. Although I don't flirt with insults, my humor has an edge. Consequently, I frequently hurt people with my sense of humor. To cope with this I work on two spiritual practices. First, I try to slow down. In the words of the bible, "be slow to speak." Being a bit more slow with humor allows me to gage the emotional state of the person I'm talking to. I try not to hit someone with humor right out of the gate. Too often, by being too quick with humor, I've misjudged people's moods, joking around when they are in no mood or, perhaps, even experiencing grief and pain. They came to me for solace and I hit them, upon first greeting, with "wit."

Second, I've learned to apologize. If you use ambiguous communication strategies you have to live with misunderstandings. The only thing you can do is be quick to notice when misunderstandings occur and be quick to apologize and ask for forgiveness.

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5 thoughts on “Sticks & Stones: Part 4, Insult, Flirtation & Humor”

  1. Thinking about last post in the ocntext of this post...

    I didn't have negative experiences with you in the past, therefore, when I read your title, I presupposed "my best intention of heart" and projected that...

    On the other hand, if I had had bad experiences with you, I would be biased in a certain way, so that I would have "read" things differently. Perhaps, I would have taken it as a critical attack of some kind that I was protecting myself from...

    Past behavior does predispose someone to prejuidice and for GOOD reason! Abusive relationships thrive on denial of "past behavior" hoping for change, and rationalizing away another's transgressions. Therefore, it is good to be prejuidiced in certain contexts, and with certain people!

    Sometimes our "hurt" is from different values, that are not "right or wrong", just different.

  2. In my observation, women are far more apt, and adept, than men at playing verbal cutthroat, especially in families and church communities. The capacity to acknowledge and apologize (I applaud you!) is restorative humility, but that practice is unthinkably alien among "Christian" prima donnas.

  3. Richard,

    A thought: Beware of both your inner Don Rickles and inner Rodney Dangerfield. I can hear the inner dialogue now (with apologies to "A Few Good Men"):

    IDR: Hey, hockey puck: you can't handle respect!

    IRD: I tell ya, I can't handle respect! The other night my wife said, Quit yanking on your tie. Or Don Rickles will show you no respect. So I stopped and he showed me . . .

    Hmmm. When Don Rickles insults you, is that a sign of respect? Or ought he to apologize?


  4. Richard and group:
    So much depends on language and language skills that I am wondering about matters of 'literacy levels' and what part this may play in the issue.

  5. What you learned, Richard, is such a helpful reminder to me. So glad for your blog.

    Just thought I would add that among Australian groups, it's often important to insult each other politely to confirm you're part of the group. They refuse to insult you until you've proven you're worth it. Then, let the teasing begin, but you better be able to take it. If you can't laugh at yourself, then, you'll just have to leave again. . . . Anyway, that's my experience.


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