The healing power of banter

Or, gently teasing your way back into society

Everything’s better with a bit of banter. That’s the memorable conclusion of The Remains of the Day, wherein the deeply repressed butler figures out he could have fixed everything with this one weird trick:

“Perhaps it is indeed time I began to look at this whole matter of bantering more enthusiastically. After all, when one thinks about it, it is not such a foolish thing to indulge in — particularly if it is indeed the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth.”

Is it the case, though? It depends what you mean by banter. As we relearn what it’s like to share physical space with talking people, it’s worth defining the term. Depending on the thickness of your skin, banter can beconversation that is funny and not serious,” or the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks,” or evenattack with good-humored jokes and jests.”

And then there’s the modern British definition of the word, which seems to have taken a downward spiral into lad memes, “the first refuge of the inexcusable,” bullying, and the unforgivable abbreviation “bantz.” Boris Johnson, arguably, is the apex banterer, the Archbishop of Banterbury, attacking his rivals just this week with the rehearsed line “They jabber, we jab. They dither, we deliver. They vacillate, we vaccinate.”

More interesting than banter as politics, though, is banter as therapy. A recent paper titled The Use of Banter In Psychotherapy: A Systematic Review set out to see if the talking cure could be improved by some light teasing. And the answer is: maybe.

Given that many of us probably have unresolved COVID tensions which we’ll unwittingly let loose in our conversations, here are three proven tactics to wittingly respond as a banter therapist.

1. Engage. Or in therapy speak, use banter “help start a reciprocal and participative process.” Keep them talking, and keep it light!

2. Escalate. The “risky yet essential intervention” is a way to confront sacred notions through comic exaggeration. Drop some straight-faced silliness into the middle of the chat, just to underline the lightness of it all. Here’s how one therapist addressed an intransigent husband:

“The next time you negotiate with her, try floating this proposal: that she clean your apartment while you watch sports and then the two of you can talk during the commercials!” Fred roared with laughter at this comic articulation and caricature of his phallic narcissistic desire.

3. Defuse.This is “state transformation through confrontation,” wherein you deftly change the tone of the conversation with a well-placed retort. Your patient may want to get serious, and you need to stop them:

“Did they teach you in school to make interpretations that your patients can't understand or use?!” I would respond, “Do you think I went to school to learn how to do this?” Or else I might retort, “Yes it was in the same course where they taught me to blame the patient for my mistakes!”

The beautiful thing about banter in the wild, though, is the immediate pointlessness of it. The larger goal may be to build human warmth, as Stevens the butler realized, and in therapy that means getting to a state of “reflection occurring slowly after a mutually agreeable build-up of banter.” But the only way you get to something meaningful is with plenty of meaninglessness. That’s the key to better banter: If there’s a point, you’ve missed the point.

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Quick quips; lightning

“Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with one another so that we can have some conversation.”
— Judith Martin

“Too much agreement kills a chat.”
— Eldridge Cleaver

“There are men who fear repartee in a wife more keenly than a sword.”
— P.G. Wodehouse


We’re just about at time for Get Wit Quick No. 106, your weekly retreading of Anthony Hopkins movies. Next week: What 2010’s The Wolfman can teach us about shaggy dog stories. If my book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting kept it any lighter, it would float off the shelves.  Give that ❤️ below a light-hearted tap for no real reason.