The Difference Between Bullying and Banter

Author: Bethany Spencer

Posted: 14 Nov 2017

Estimated time to read: 5 mins

"But it's only banter sir!"

Ah yes. The word that has come to mean so much more than it was originally intended is now commonplace in schools. It's thought to have begun as part of regional London slang in the late 1800s. Since the 2010s however it's popularity has risen, thanks, in no small part, to a very cheeky piri piri chicken restaurant chain.  

Having become a widely recognised and celebrated part of young people's humour, banter trickled effortlessly into classroom. But its prevalence in schools has made it difficult for both students and teachers to determine what is banter and what is bullying.

Jestful name-calling between friends has made it hard for some to decipher when the line has been crossed. How do we know when friendly teasing becomes repetitive insult? When a joke could leave students in tears of laughter or tears of upset.

How to differentiate between banter and bullying


If you've ever asked your students, you're sure to have heard a myriad of banter definitions. However the official Oxford dictionary definition of banter calls it:

"The playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks."

Whether or not teasing is seen as bullying is subjective. Different sources theorise that banter becomes bullying once the person giving the insult has the intention of causing harm or upset.

On the other hand, opposing theorists suggest that banter in fact becomes bullying once the person is offended, regardless of the perpetrator's intent.

But perhaps the most accurate indicator of bullying or bantering is that bullying comes from an imbalance of power. Banter is something that happens between peers, friends and equals.

Even so, it’s not as simple to distinguish between the two with these definitions - there are those who will claim their behavior was simply in jest because they regard the victim as a friend.

The Difference Between Banter and Bullying

But even when the recipient and perpetrator are friends, this doesn’t mean to say that what someone sees as just a bit of harmless banter isn’t upsetting; even to their best friend.

With this being said, it’s important that we communicate to students the impact harmless ‘banter’ can have on their peers and how it can in fact be seen as bullying.

We’ve come up with some simple steps that you can present to your students to help get them thinking about their actions so we can help them answer the questions, what is the difference between banter and bullying, and when does banter become bullying?

How to keep up with classroom banter

  • Know which humour is acceptable - Making fun of someone’s race, gender, religion, disability, ethnicity or appearance isn’t cool. Even if someone pokes fun at themselves it doesn’t make it okay for others to do the same.

  • Keep up with online trends - Check Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. With the pace that online trends last these days, it's unlikely you'll be able to keep up completely, but having a little understanding of the kind of humour your students are consuming will leave you better equipped at keeping up with 'banter' and stopping anything that falls outside of that.  

  • Don’t humour bad banter - We’ve all been there, you’re all having a laugh and someone oversteps the mark and leaves a student upset. Because they’re friends they laugh it off, but you can tell one of them isn't happy. If you don’t call someone out on the fact they’ve taken it too far, you’re only going to encourage more comments of a similar vein.

  • Don’t be a bystander - Even when you’re not on the receiving end of banter you can still make a difference. If you can tell someone isn’t enjoying the banter being thrown their way, point it out. It will help them in feeling supported, but it will also let the perpetrator know that the jokes they’re making aren’t funny.

  • Read the room - Every relationship is different and it’s important to take this into consideration when bantering. Friends of years may well make fun of each other in front of others but it may not be your place to do the same. Always remember to read the room and don’t join in on teasing you may not feel comfortable with, especially if you don’t know the person well enough to join in.

  • Don’t hone in on people’s insecurities - Poking fun at something you know someone is already insecure about is never nice, no matter how close you think you both are - it’s only going to make them feel more insecure, and bringing it up in front of others is only going to embarrass them.

  • Turn the tables - By saying ‘it’s only banter’ doesn’t excuse your actions if you’ve upset someone. Before you make a jibe at someone you’re unsure about put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself if you’d find it funny in their position. Just because you’re friends and you think it’s funny, doesn’t actually mean it is.

For more information on ways to prevent bullying visit the Anti-bullying Alliance and remember we don't always have to wait for Anti-Bullying Week to raise awareness of bullying. 

difference between banter and bullying