Building a model of Why I Don’t Like Teasing (Usually)

I’ve known for years that I’m not very fond of the thing commonly referred to as “teasing”, or more technically “casual interpersonal antagonism”. I made that term up. But there’s something helpful in thinking that there could be technical terms for stuff like this. Another technical term is “friendly countersignaling” It seemed people were trying to justify saying mean things by saying “well I didn’t really mean it” but it seemed that often they did mean it.

I realized this way back when I had my first break-up at age 16. My partner at the time really liked a certain kind of teasing that I found very aversive (for example, saying “you’re weird” in a way that made it sound like this was a bad thing) and this was one part of what made things tense enough to prompt a breakup (although maybe it just exacerbated existing tension?). I don’t blame her: at the start of our relationship, a year or so prior, I’d actually been quite teasy myself, but I think that that teasing (which was fairly flirty I guess) itself came out of a lot of insecurity and fear that I had had at the time. Like I was trying hard to pretend I didn’t like her because I was afraid she mightn’t like me. Whereas once we’d been dating for awhile that didn’t really make sense, on my end.

Anyway, enough about Malcolm’s early love-life. The point is that I had an aversion to teasing, not just abstractly but from a specific instance of it being problematic. I even had a model of myself as someone who didn’t like teasing, and I warned some later romantic partners about it going into the relationship. But I didn’t really think much more about why I didn’t like teasing: it just seemed like the natural state of affairs.

Until this summer.

I was hanging out with a couple of good friends of mine, who had recently gotten closer to each other and started dating. I’d already been very fond of each of them individually, and I was enjoying the new dynamic they had together as well. Let’s call them A & B, just so I can refer to the pair of them.

And then I realized something weird: they did a lot of teasing each other. And I liked it. Not only that, but I wanted to join in. And not only that, but I felt good about it. (Sometimes in the past I’d been attracted to teasing, but it ended up making me feel icky afterwards.) I was baffled and really wanted to know why there was this huge difference.

Building explicit models of things

One other thing that happened this summer is that a bunch of the people I was hanging out with were talking about the idea of building explicit models of things you’re trying to understand better. This was sometimes
called “modeling”, other times “theorizing”, and could be contrasted with experimenting or otherwise collecting data. This process is taking the data you already have and making sense of it—a really valuable approach for dealing with social or personal things where you have a ton of data already but probably haven’t tried to organize it very much.

I had in my head the idea that this was a thing I was bad at, which I’ve later realized is hilariously oversimplified. What I seemed to actually be unpracticed at was refining said models. For years, I’d been doing a ton of modeling while I’m writing blog posts: many of my posts are literally me saying “here’s a model I invented/adapted!” But I hadn’t spent more than a few hours on any given model.

The other issue is that with the blogging modeling, I never said, “Here’s a thing I don’t understand. I shall now attempt to understand it.” The structure was instead that I would have an insight first, from some unintentional process, and then I would start to blog about it, and in writing the blog post I would often figure more things out. But I never started with an open question.

Deliberately building an explicit model of my relationship with teasing

So this summer, I was at a modeling workshop, specifically geared to modeling people or social dynamics. And we had about half an hour to try an example. I decided to pick this teasing question to focus on, since it seemed tractable and valuable. The first question we asked was “why do I want to model this?” since (a) that helps determine if it’s worth modeling, and (b) it helps to clarify what the goal is.

Topic: why I like A & B’s teasing and not others’

  • what happens if I totally solve this?
    • I get to have better teasing and hanging out with them
    • and also better interaction with other people
  • what happens if I don’t figure this out?
    • many future relationships may need caveats about teasing
    • I may find myself tense in more situations

These seemed worth working for, at least for half an hour. In general, you want to make models that will affect your behaviour relatively quickly, rather than just being abstractly “useful” or “interesting”. This is especially true when you’re starting out, so that you can get a sense of how valuable modeling can be, which creates an appetite to do more.

I started trying to answer this question, by writing down the first things that came to mind. I asked myself “what is teasing?” and answered that in a few different way. I tried to notice patterns in past experiences I’d had of being teased (some of which we could reasonably call bullying). I made a list of dimensions along which the situations could vary, thinking that maybe those made the difference. The list went:

  • how long I’ve known people
  • what the teasing is about
  • sense of control of the situation (like the idea of having a safe word)
  • sense of how much someone likes me
    • admires
    • respects
  • my own headspace / self-confidence on a week/month scale
  • the context

I then tried the BOLD CLAIM: if I have all of these dials turned to “good”, then I’m comfortable with the teasing. I fairly readily concluded: “nope!” The items on this list were neither necessary nor sufficient. In particular, how long I’ve known people, what the teasing is about, and the context. The other ones seemed to matter a bit, but definitely didn’t make or break it.

So I abandoned that approach. I then turned to the question: “what kind of teasing to I really not like?” That list was fairly easy to generate:

  • “Hey, remember that really embarrasing thing you did once” is really annoying… and even worse if that’s said repeatedly.
  • I noted in general that repeated comments were really annoying.
  • Making fun of mostly-immutable traits
    • accents
    • …there’s a sense of “this is stupid, stop talking about it”
    • a sense of it being shallow, like having nothing to do with me

(Aside: I was a little nervous writing up here exactly how to annoy me, but then I realized that if anyone took this list and decided to do it, they’d be basically deliberately harassing me, and they’d already be the kind of person I wouldn’t want to interact with them ever. Now with an easy filter!)

I looked at this list and noticed that in every case, the teasing with A & B was exactly the opposite. I tried a new claim: I like teasing with A & B because it’s…

  • creative & improvisational
  • personal in an I-understand-you way
  • drawing attention to things that are meaningful to the person
  • timely, not about the past
  • …and maybe even actually helpful for the teased person modeling themself and the situation

I stared at this list and concluded that was basically it.

A week or so later, I shared this model (and the process) with A & B, and when I got to the things I didn’t like, the horrified sounds and faces that B made (“ugh, I know, repeated comments. the worst”) told me that they resonated a lot with my feelings about teasing.

It was a really cool feeling to have started with confusion, done a bunch of thinking (without really any new input), and then I resolved the confusion. It was a totally self-directed process, aside from the list of tips and ideas that I’d been given at the modeling workshop. And it gave me a lot of inspiration to try doing a lot more explicit model-building this fall, which has been valuable as well.


If you’re interested in learning more about how to model, well, I’m not an expert, but I’m a relative expert and so I could probably show you a bit and help you get going. This, in turn, would be a valuable learning experience for me. If you’re interested, shoot me an email at firstname at firstname lastname dot com. Make sure to spell “Malcolm” right—most people don’t.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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2 Comments

Alex » 11 Dec 2015 » Reply

I think the key is joking about the person vs joking about the situation.

ixi » 17 Dec 2015 » Reply

People don’t tease me unless they care.

For me, teasing can be fun when it’s a form of intimacy. When I know another person really “gets” me, I willingly give them permission to playfully call me out on my shit. They can call me a whore, which is funny, because both of us know it’s not true. Or, they can tease me about something that is true, and it’s funny BECAUSE it’s true. But I know they don’t think less of me, and I can laugh about it with them. It’s never about feeling misunderstood or wrongly accused if the person I’m with understands me. And, in a way, it feels like closeness that they trust me that much to tease ME, knowing I’m going to have fun with it and either laugh with them or turn it around and hit them with something equally as witty. It becomes play. Play from safe space. Improvisation, like you said. Some of my favorite relationships, romantic and platonic, had a LOT of teasing. When I can tease someone and know they’re going to have fun with it instead of get mortally wounded by it, that means a lot to me. Because I know they trust me. They trust that I know them and care for them.

I’ve been teased by people I didn’t know very well and still enjoyed it a lot. For example, on a first date, he totally pegged me for someone that can talk A LOT when I’m telling stories about my experiences. He interjected during one of my diatribes and then he made some comment jokingly, “ok I’ll just let you get back to talking about yourself. That’s what you really want to do anyway!” and we both cracked up, because it was so true! I laughed about it with him, and felt like he cared enough to make a very accurate and authentic assessment of my personality. Life is silly.

Do I think teasing can be mean spirited and hurtful and downright annoying? Yes. I think it depends a lot on the intention. If someone is trying to hurt me and make me feel bad about myself by teasing me, well…I’m not interested in that. I can’t say I’ve experienced a whole lot of that in my life, probably mostly as a child, but then my mom taught me to say “I don’t want to be talked to that way!” and they didn’t know what the fuck to do with that! She also taught me that in many cases it was flirtation, like you mentioned in the beginning paragraph.

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