Banter or bullying? How to call out inappropriate language

Nearly all men would have experienced it at some point — that uncomfortable feeling of hearing someone use inappropriate or harmful language. It could be your tipsy uncle slurring some outdated racial term after one too many drinks on Christmas Day. It could be a teammate at your sports club who strays from playful banter to sexist stereotyping in the blink of an eye. It could be a work colleague’s off-colour joke at the water cooler that goes down like a lead balloon.

Those situations happen on an all-too-often basis. And while most individuals, businesses, organisations and governments are working to promote equality and respectful relationships, there are still tricky questions to ponder. Some may include: 

  • Why is language so important?
  • What is the difference between banter and disrespectful language? 
  • Should I call someone out when they say something inappropriate? And if so, how?
  • Can ‘good’ people say ‘bad’ things?

Why is language so important?

Public Health Consultant Ali Peipers says language has the power to set the tone for what’s acceptable and what’s not when it comes to equality and inclusivity. 

“The words and phrases we use can reinforce negative attitudes or help make everyone feel comfortable and respected,” she says. 

“Society is evolving, and our language needs to evolve too. As a culture, we’re hopefully moving on from telling sexist or racist jokes. We’re leading more examined lives, and I think we need to examine our language choices, too — we need to realise that our banter has an impact on those around us. 

“What may once have been accepted as a flippant comment or joke could now be seen as sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist or just plain rude.”

While inappropriate language is concerning enough, someone’s choice of words can be an indicator of their true feelings around equality and respect towards others. With rates of violence against women and children a “problem of epidemic proportions in Australia,” according to the Australian Government, promoting equality has never been more important. 

Our Watch — a national leader in the primary prevention of violence against women and children in Australia — states that while “male peer relationships … are an important aspect of men’s lives, research shows that men and boys often rely on sexist, homophobic and aggressive behaviours, to prove their masculinity and to gain approval from their peers. This helps to foster and maintain a particular culture of masculinity based on aggression and the objectification and harassment of women. In this way, male peer relationships are seen to be a key gendered driver of violence against women.” 


Banter vs. bullying — a fine line

For many men, banter — which is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as a ‘conversation that is funny and not serious’ — plays a significant role in their lives. Banter can take place anywhere — from the family home, to classrooms, workplaces, sports settings and pretty much any situation where men gather.

So, can you enjoy some light-hearted chat with your mates or colleagues in a respectful manner? Yes, as long as it doesn’t ‘cross the line’.

But what is that line, and how do you make sure it doesn’t get crossed? 

UK-based charity Ditch The Label has a five-point plan to ensure banter doesn’t become bullying:

  • Keep it clean — don’t laugh at someone’s appearance, race, sexuality, identity or disability
  • If it isn’t funny, don’t laugh — if you have to fake a laugh to brush off a hurtful comment, you’re only encouraging more comments. If it goes too far, let them know
  • Don’t stand by and let it happen if someone is clearly not having fun — try not to be a bystander. Often the person saying the hurtful comments will stop when they realise they don’t have an audience
  • Don’t pick on something you know someone is already insecure about — never pick up on a feature that you know is a sensitive subject for someone
  • Saying “it’s just banter” or ending your sentence with “just kidding” doesn’t unsay a hurtful comment — just because you say it is banter, doesn’t mean it is. Think before you speak and ask yourself ‘would I find this funny if the tables were turned?’


How words can be a warning sign for much worse

Of course, not all men who use demeaning language become physically violent, but Peipers says harmful language can be a precursor to other negative behaviours. 

“If we excuse one form of sexism, for example, we strengthen the underlying foundations of violence against women,” she says. “Stamping out poor language choices is easier than addressing physical or sexual violence. 

“We’re not suggesting that by telling a sexist joke you’ll become physically violent, but it’s likely that men who are abusive or violent towards women don’t have a problem with sexist language.” 

A spokesperson from the Department of Social Service says: “The Australian Government funds a number of campaigns that address disrespect, and how to navigate the line between banter and inappropriate comments. Using respectful language can reduce disrespectful or aggressive behaviour by boys and helps to raise girls in an environment of respect. 

“By taking steps like questioning inappropriate comments, role modelling positive behaviours and having conversations about respect, these campaigns provide guidance for what is and isn’t acceptable.”


How to call out inappropriate language

Many people still use language that hurts others — deliberately or unknowingly. So, what happens next?

Calling someone out is usually uncomfortable for all parties — nobody enjoys confrontation, especially if it’s someone you’re close to. 

Peipers says men should aim to be ‘active’ bystanders, although it’s not always easy. 

“The first thing is to spot the harmful language, so have your antennas up … being attuned to what might be inappropriate is important,” she says. “Don’t just laugh along with it — if everyone just lets this behaviour continue, it can fester and grow into something worse.

“By you intervening when other people make an inappropriate comment, you are being an active bystander. 

“It is not always easy to be an active bystander — it does need to be safe for you (to call out the language), so pick your moment. You don’t always have to go into battle and you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you miss an opportunity to intervene. You might just think ‘OK, the moment has passed on that one’ or you might’ve even giggled along, but try to ensure that if you hear that again, you can say something. 

“But it doesn’t have to be there and then — you might say something to the person later, so as not to inflame the situation.”

Respect Victoria — which was established in 2018 to ‘prevent all forms of family violence and violence against women before they happen, by driving evidence-informed primary prevention’ — offers a list outlining 16 ways to call out disrespect, including:

  • Don't laugh at sexist jokes
  • Make a light-hearted comment to show you’re not impressed: "What century are you living in?" 
  • Check in with the person affected: "I heard what he just said, are you okay?" 
  • Privately let them know their behaviour is not okay: "The joke you made in yesterday's meeting was not funny, and actually not okay." 
  • Speak up and educate by explaining why you disagree: "Actually evidence shows the vast majority of women do not make up false claims of sexual assault." 
  • Support others when they call it out: "I agree, that's not funny." 
  • Appeal to their better self: "Come on, you're better than that." 
  • Report the behaviour to management, or via incident reporting systems if available.


Can ‘good’ people say ‘bad’ things?

“Absolutely,” says Peipers. “It’s very easy to get swept along and (think) things like ‘everyone laughs with this joke’ or ‘this is just how we talk when we’re down the pub’. 

“Perhaps quite innocently, some people don’t examine their language choices and don’t think about the implications of their words and how they might make other people feel. 

“Then, the poor language gets reinforced. You might get a laugh or no-one says anything (to call it out), so there’s no reason for your approach to change.

“Men should think about the type of man they want to be.”

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