As a follow up to my last two posts here and here, I offer this set of rules I have come up with for laughing at people you love. Essentially this is what I have learned through trial and error (mostly error) about how to tease someone the right way. Essentially it comes down to two very simple and obvious principles which are simply and baldly ignored by most people most of the time:
1) Know yourself
2) Know the other person
That's it. That's all you have to do and, not only will it guarantee your learning how to use teasing correctly, but it will also solve 99% of your relationship* problems. And it's free! I am posting it right on the internet for absolutely 0.00 dollars down, and then only three easy payments of $free.99.
Of course, there is always the part where I actually have to do what I have thought of. That is the hard part, and, far from being free, it may well cost me everything I have. It remains to be seen whether the sacrifice is worth the pearl of great price.
How do you know yourself, in the context of friendly teasing? This is primarily a matter of internal awareness of what you are really saying. Loving teasing is shaped by primarily two factors internal factors. The first is the overall context of how your relationship with that person is. Loving teasing can exist only in the context of a loving relationship. How you really feel about this person is the single most important factor in determining whether your banter is loving or not, so if your relationship is shaky or twisted in some way, don't even try it. Heal the relationship first. Teasing is strong fair, only digestible by strong emotional stomachs. If there is an underlying tension in your relationship and you try to tease someone without acknowledging that tension and bringing it to light, it will come out in hidden form in your teasing.
The other factor in knowing yourself is an awareness of your emotional habits and patterns. Granted that your relationship with the other is healthy, we all still have long standing habits, learned from our earliest childhood on, that shape how we deal with conflicts and tension. Some people withdraw, some people hide, some people stick their head in the sand (not the same as hiding), some push, some go straight for the throat, some just try to force the other to submit. There is no one, not one person alive, who does not inherit some unhealthy pattern for dealing with conflict. Patterns very often can be traced from generation to generation within families. You do what your parents did or you react against it in the opposite direction. This is not doom and gloom. It is simply being aware of human beings (seen through the lens of my own behavior) as they really are, i.e. wounded with an existential wound.
These patterns are not the whole story, but they do come into play very strongly when there is conflict within a relationship. Even in a healthy relationship, human beings will not always agree with one another. This is not a bad thing, it is how we grow. The problem comes not from disagreement, but from how we handle that disagreement. If you have a habit of using sarcasm to attack, or light banter to hide, then these are tactics you should avoid. You must also practice being aware of what you are really feeling, the deeper meaning behind that joke. It doesn't have to be malicious to be poisonous. Simple irritation, impatience or annoyance is enough to cause an unbelievable amount of hurt. Even if the relationship is such that you really do love and trust each other, this does not make the hurt less. If anything it makes the hurt even greater because it is dealt out by someone who is trusted, and is therefore a betrayal of that trust.
However, knowing yourself is not yet enough. You must also know the other person, because whether or not they are hurt by what you say depends as much on how they take it as on how you meant it. People misunderstand each other all the time, and misunderstanding causes as much tension and pain as actual malice.
This starts out at the most basic level simply by paying attention to the other. Learning to read body language and conversational cues will go a long way to letting you know how your humor is coming across. Some people are natural at this. I am most definitely not so I have had to devote a lot of effort to this study, but it has been eminently worth it. It also has required a lot of paying attention to people who have a talent for making other people laugh, and imitating their style. (Yes, the whole process sounds rather laborious, but that's how I learned to socialize. The biggest step was learning not to take myself too seriously. It doesn't come naturally to me.)
The second step is learning to tease the way the other person wants to be teased. Which doesn't mean that someone is going to say, "Hey, would you poke fun at me about x, y or z? I really enjoy it when you do that." That would violate the essentially modest nature of teasing. (In fact, I almost feel like thinking this much into it violates that nature. I intend to forget the whole thing as soon as I have written it.) You have to pay attention to how they respond. If you have learned to pay attention to how much fun they are having, rather than how much fun you are having, it shouldn't be too hard to figure out what things are fair game for making any particular person laugh (your mom or dad for instance) and which are off limits.
The next step is to realize that people, especially women but also men, have moods. This means that even though you may have found a way to joke around that is acceptable most of the time, that doesn't mean that it is automatically acceptible if the person is in a bad mood. Even when you know a person really well you still have to be aware of their particular mood at any given moment.
Finally, it has to be mutual. It doesn't do for you to be one who is teasing all the time, but they can't say anything back. Of course if they know you as well as you know them, they should have plenty of material for jokes (if you haven't found something teaseworthy about someone, you don't know them yet.) You absolutely have to laugh at yourself.
Don't be afraid to make mistakes, learn from your mistakes. If you accidentally hurt someone apologize immediately, acknowledge how and why it happened, and take that into account next time.
Knowing another person, however, is problematic because on the deepest level a self is unknowable by another self, at least in this world. Even a husband and wife who have loved each other dearly for sixty years cannot be said to know each other totally. Not yet anyway. There remains a part of the will for which the individual alone is responsible. The key to another's heart is always in the hand of that person and there are places within that heart which can be known only by God. No human being is big enough to fill another's soul.
This may seem like an academic existential distinction but it is of immense practical value because it means that, no matter how well I know the other, I might be wrong. A joke meant in kindness might hit an unsuspected nerve. How damaging this is depends on the overall context of how that relationship stands day to day. It also provides the philosophical basis for a certain humility in our search for knowledge of the other. I can never know her totally (in this life. I leave off discussion of the next), and that, far from being a source of regret, should be a source of joy. It means that no matter how long this friendship lasts I will never run out of friend to know and love. It means that the source of this relationship is quite literally inexhaustible. This humility is essential to healthy relationships because nothing will kill a relationship faster than idolatry, the demand made on a human being to be all in all, to fill a place he or she can never fill.
The language of humility is laughter. It is infinitely far from being the self-deprecating, gloomy "I am a miserable worm of a being" talk of some overly religious types. Laughter alone acknowledges the truth of our limitations, and allows us to rest secure in the knowledge that our limitations, for all their illusions of grandeur, are not the whole story. Not even close.
I will glory in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and rejoice. Psalm 34:2 If you are afflicted you are eligible for the "hear and rejoice" club. And which of us is not afflicted?
*Throughout this post the term "relationship" should not be understood to be speaking exclusively, or even primarily, about romantic relationships. I am instead speaking of the entire gamut of human relationships. Wherever one human being comes into contact with another, there is a relationship of some sort in existence and these principles come into play within the context of that relationship and its nature.