How To Banter (Without Being an Asshole)

Is there anything quite as sexy as someone with wit and a way with words?

There’s a reason why a sense of humor is almost always at the top of everybody’s list of most attractive attributes; being able to make someone laugh makes them feel good. Humor builds rapport, and finding things that we both find funny is way of finding commonality. Humor helps us have fun, and we appreciate people who have the ability to bring the fun. Of course, if you just roll up on someone and start delivering Patton Oswalt’s routine about KFC turning fried chicken and mashed potatoes into a $4.99 bowl of gravy-drenched bowel liquifying shame, you’re not going to be getting anybody’s number. At best, you’re going to have people wondering why this strange person is performing guerrilla stand-up comedy at the bar.

The key to the effective use of humor when it comes to flirting is wit. It’s about playful teasing and a back-and-forth. It’s about knowing how to banter.

What Is Bantering (And What Is It Not?)

Bantering is defined as: “The playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks”. In many ways, it’s a verbal back-and-forth; it’s more dance than duel, where the goal is for both parties to enjoy themselves rather than one person or the other wounding or insulting the other. It’s as much an exercise in improvisation as it is flirting, both of you riffing on a topic, whether it’s a temporary role-play or treating your partner like they are your bratty little sibling.

What bantering is not is being coarse, rude or insulting. One of the biggest issues I’ve seen in dating circles are people who seem to mistake being an asshole for being funny. This was only made worse when the concept of “cocky-funny” and “negging” were introduced through PUA circles to the general populace. As a result, people got the idea that the key to a woman’s heart was to be an unbearable prick and playing fucked up status games and trying to play off supposed low-self esteem or proving that you’re somehow “better” than them because you were willing to give them shit in public.

Banter is spontaneous and playful. Even if you’re being risque or pushing the boundaries of good taste, the idea is to have fun. If your partner suddenly seems upset or insulted, you’ve likely gone too far or hit a sensitive topic.

Pro tip: The appropriate response when having accidentally insulted someone or pushed the line too far is “Hey, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you,” not “C’mon, you can take a joke, can’t you?” Bantering is not an excuse for acting like a bag of dicks.

Body Language And Delivery

The key to banter  – even more than the actual words – are your body language, your tonality and your delivery. Most of human communication is non-verbal; we are forever coloring the meaning and intent of our words with hosts of micro-signals, whether it’s through posture, eye-contact, facial expressions or tone of voice. When you’re bantering with someone, you want to carry the sub-communication that none of this is serious, even when you’re calling him clumsy or telling her that she’s clearly only talking to you because she’s a sexual predator.

At the same time, you don’t want to be seeming as though you’re seeking their approval or affirmation of your worth as a human being. Too many people – especially those who are less socially experienced or may be a bit more nervous talking to someone they’re attracted to – can come across as though they’re desperately trying to get you to like them.

There is no surer way of killing sexual attraction than by giving off the scent of desperation. People are looking for partners (even if only for ten minutes of anonymous dirty sex in the club bathroom) not for a puppy following them around hoping for a biscuit and a belly-rub.

To avoid coming off as insulting or approval-seeking, you want to project an air of easy confidence; you want to be standing straight, not hunched. You want to be relaxed, not tense and jittery; in fact, you may want to consider leaning back a little (if you’re sitting) or against a convenient wall if it’s available.  You want open, friendly body language  – angling yourself towards the person you’re talking to with your shoulders back and your arms loose and a big, friendly smile on your face. You keep your tone light and friendly; assuming familiarity and treating them as though you’re already friends makes it easier to have the same tone of voice you would use with your best friend when the two of you are riffing back and forth at each other. You want to convey the feeling that the two of you are in on it together, that you’re having fun with him or her rather than at their expense.

“Just so you know, I’m planning on sleeping with you despite your tie.”

Even when you’re being self-deprecating, you want to keep the attitude of “nah, I’m just fuckin’ with ya”; you don’t want to come across as though you really think you’re a loser, you want to make it clear that it’s a joke through your tone and behavior.

Bantering, Teasing and Antagonistic Flirting

I’m a fan of teasing as a part of flirting. Teasing is the art of telling someone you like them while saying something mean in a playful way. The antagonistic aspect of teasing follows the push-pull dynamic of flirting; you’re giving a compliment and putting up a barrier or disqualification at the same time. “You’re the most awesome person I’ve met… so far.” “Dude, you’re hilarious… it’s too bad you’re such a dork.” When done properly, it invites a response or comeback rather than sullen silence. For example – taken from my personal experience:  “Oh, I’m the dork? I didn’t realize someone wearing a Star Wars tee-shirt was allowed to cast judgement on somebody else.”

(In fairness, that shirt was vintage and it was awesome.)

In the cold text, this can seem insulting, even combative; if you were to read this without any sort of descriptors, you would think these two people disliked each other. However, when you factor in outside elements: sitting together at the bar, her knee up against my thigh, her smiling and delivering a playful punch when she said it – it’s not an insult match any more, it’s bantering back and forth.

The subtext of the conversation – beyond the fun that was to be had by gently digging at one another – was simple. I was saying “I like you and I know you like me already, so I’m going to make you work for it a little.” She was responding with “I see what you’re doing and I’m going to volley it right back to you, let’s see if you can keep this up.”

“So tell me, have you ever put someone’s eye out with your sideburns?”

In general there are two ways of handling this sort of banter: volley it back one more time  – “The girl rocking the Rachel haircut shouldn’t be trying to give me fashion advice,” or to agree and amplify: “Hey, don’t knock the shirt, the shirt gets the ladies interested. Then it’s the Star Wars sheets that seals the deal.”

When she dropped her glass and splashed her vodka soda on me, I joked that she had a drinking problem. She told me to be careful with that joke because it was an antique. I said she wouldn’t know a joke if it bit her on the ass, and she told me that if someone was going to bite her on the ass, it had better have bought dinner first instead of using cheesy pick-up lines. We poked and prodded and dug at one another for a while before settling down to a deeper rapport. We continued to banter and make jokes – after all, we were enjoying ourselves and it always upped the sexual tension – but the point does come when you set aside the playful point-scoring and spend time getting to know one another.

One of my favorite examples of this form of flirting comes from the movie The Adjustment Bureau with Matt Damon and Emily Blunt:

For all that they are straight-up insulting one another, their tone and smiles tell the truth: they’re enjoying the interaction. The attraction, the sexual chemistry is unmistakable, even when they’re cutting down each other’s taste in clothes or playing silly games of keep-away with phones.

(For the record: Dr. NerdLove does not advocate the destruction of personal property as a means of flirting.)

Once again, if you’re teasing someone and you’re getting back silence or hurt looks, you’ve made a mistake and need to backtrack.

To Get Better at Banter, Learn to Think On Your Feet

Part of the point of banter is that it’s spontaneous and of the moment. It’s possible to build up a repertoire of specific banter “lines” that you can haul out as needed, but it can be difficult to make that sound natural and unplanned. It’s better to learn how to work with what you have on hand than to try to reach through the mental rolodex for the right joke at the right time – or worse, to try to force the conversation in a direction where you could use your line.

This is why I recommend improv classes as a way of getting better at banter.

Improv isn’t about being the “funny” guy or about creating increasingly absurd scenarios, it’s about how to roll with the punches. Improv teaches you how to respond to what your partner gives rather than to try to force a particular result; the key words in any improv exercise are “yes, and…”  It teaches you how to react quickly and instinctively rather than overcomplicating a moment by analyzing it to death or being too concerned with trying to be “funny”. Thinking too much about trying to be funny kills the mood; banter is all about quick responses. It’s a verbal joust. Not everything the two of you say is going to be a gold bon-mot handed down to you by the ghost of Oscar Wilde at the exact moment you need it, but as long as you’re enjoying yourselves, you’re going to find yourselves smiling and laughing.

That having been said…

Steal Learn From The Experts

Much like other aspects of dating, banter is a skill and one that improves with study and practice. Part of what counts in banter and wit is timing and delivery as much as the actual lines, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have some examples to study while you’re working on being able to respond quickly to a straight line.

One of the best examples I’ve seen for banter come from classic movies; thanks to the restrictions at the time, writers couldn’t fall back on vulgarity or shock as easily as they can today and had to put more emphasis on witty repartee, timing and the ability of the actors. Having verbal role-models that preclude touchy subjects (blatant sexual references, race, religion) can help you sharpen your wits without relying on comedic crutches. Plus, you get to watch some classic movies in the process.

The obvious example for banter would be Some Like It Hot with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon or It Happened One Night with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. The Thin Man series with Walter Powell and Myrna Loy are also excellent examples of bantering back and forth within a couple.

But some of the best examples of banter, both in terms of wit and performance, comes from the Marx Brothers. Groucho and the others came from a vaudville background and it shows in the zippy delivery and absolutely perfect timing of their material. A Night at the Opera and Duck Soup are some of their most beloved works and can help you get a feel for the back and forth.

…although I don’t recommend him as your style avatar.

And if you happen to pick up a line or two for your own use… well…

Going back to Oscar Wilde:

“Oh, I wish I had said that.”

“Don’t worry Oscar, within an hour, you will have,”