One very interesting behavior that humans tend to engage in is murder. While we’re far from the only species that does this (as there are some very real advantages to killing members of your species – even kin – at times), it does tend to garner quite a bit of attention, and understandably so. One very interesting piece of information about this interesting behavior concerns motives; why people kill. If you were to hazard a guess as to some of the most common motives for murder, what would you suggest? Infidelity is a good one, as is murder resulting from other deliberate crimes, like when a robbery is resisted or witnesses are killed to reduce the probability of detection. Another major factor that many might not guess is minor slights or disagreements, such as one person stepping on another person’s foot by accident, followed by an insult (“watch where you’re going, asshole!”), which is responded to with an additional insult, and things kind of get out of hand until someone is dead (Daly & Wilson, 1988). Understanding why seemingly minor slights get blown so far out of proportion is a worthwhile matter in its own right. The short-version of the answer as to why it happens is that one’s social status (especially if you’re a male) can be determined, in large part, by whether other people know they can push you around. If I know you will tolerate negative behavior without fighting back, I might be encouraged to take advantage of you in more extreme ways more often. If others see you tolerating insults, they too may exploit you, knowing you won’t fight back. On the other hand, if I know you will respond to even slight threats with violence, I have a good reason to avoid inflicting costs on you. The more dangerous you are, the more people will avoid harming you.
“Anyone else have something to say about my shirt?! Didn’t think so…”
This is an important foundation for understanding why another facet of human behavior is strange (and, accordingly, interesting): friends frequently insult each other in a manner intended to be cordial. This behavior is exemplified well by the popular Comedy Central Roasts, where a number of comedians will get together to publicly make fun of each other and their guest of honor. If memory serves, the (unofficial?) motto of these events is, “We only roast the ones we love,” which is intended to capture the idea that these insults are not intended to burn bridges or truly cause harm. They are insults born of affection, playful in nature. This is an important distinction because, as the murder statistics help demonstrate, strangers often do not tolerate these kinds of insults. If I were to go up to someone I didn’t know well (or knew well as an enemy) and started insulting their drug habits, dead loved ones, or even something as simple as their choice of dress, I could reasonably expect anything from hurt feelings to a murder. This raises an interesting series of mysteries surrounding the matter of why the stranger might want to kill me but my friends will laugh, as well as when my friends might be inclined to kill me as well.
Insults can be spoken in two primary manners: seriously and in jest. In the former case, harm is intended, while in the latter it often isn’t. As many people can attest to, however, the line between serious and jesting insults is not always as clear as we’d like. Despite our best intentions, ill-phrased or poorly-timed jokes can do harm in much the same way that a serious insult can. This suggests that the nature of the insults is similar between the two contexts. As the function of a serious insult between strangers would seem to be to threaten or lower the insulted target’s status, this is likely the same function of an insult made in jest between friends, though the degree of intended threat is lower in those contexts. The closest analogy that comes to mind is the difference between a serious fight and a friendly tussle, where the combatants either are, or are not, trying to inflict serious harm on each other. Just like play fighting, however, things sometimes go too far and people do get hurt. I think joking insults between friends go much the same way.
This raises another worthwhile question: as friends usually have a vested interest in defending each other from outside threats and being helpful, why would they then risk threatening the well-being of their allies through such insults? It would be strange if they were all risk and reward, so it would be up to us to explain what that reward is. There are a few explanations that come to mind, all of which focus on one crucial facet of friendships: they are dynamic. While friendships can be – and often are – stable over time, who you are friends with in general as well as the degree of that friendship changes over time. Given that friendships are important social resources that do shift, it’s important that people have reliable ways of assessing the strength of these relationships. If you are not assessing these relationships now and again, you might come to believe that your social ties are stronger than they actually are, which can be a problem when you find yourself in need of social support and realize that you don’t have it. Better to assess what kind of support you have before you actually need it so you can tailor your behavior more appropriately.
“You guys got my back, right?….Guys?….”
Insults between friends can help serve this relationship-monitoring function. As insults – even the joking kind – carry the potential to inflict costs on their target, the willingness of an individual to tolerate the insult – to endure those costs – can serve as a credible signal for friendship quality. After all, if I’m willing to endure the costs of being insulted by you without responding aggressively in turn, this likely means I value your friendship more than I dislike the costs being inflicted. Indeed, if these insults did not carry costs, they would not be reliable indications of friendship strength. Anyone could tolerate behavior that didn’t inflict costs to maintain a friendship, but not everyone will tolerate behaviors that do. This yields another prediction: the degree of friendship strength can also be assessed by the degree of insults willing to be tolerated. In other words, the more it takes to “go too far” when it comes to insults, the closer and stronger the friendship between two individuals. Conversely, if you were to make a joke about your friend that they become incredibly incensed over, this might result in your reevaluating the strength of that bond: if you thought the bond was stronger than it was, you might either take steps to remedy the cost you just inflicted and make the friendship stronger (if you value the person highly) or perhaps spend less time investing in the relationship, even to the point of walking away from it entirely (if you do not).
Another possible related function of these insults could be to ensure that your friends don’t start to think too highly of themselves. As mentioned previously, friendships are dynamic things based, in part, on what each party can offer to the other. If one friend begins to see major changes to their life in a positive direction, the other friend may no longer be able to offer the same value they did previously. To put that in a simple example, if two friends have long been poor, but one suddenly gets a new, high-paying job, the new status that job affords will allow that person to make friends he likely could not before. Because the job makes them more valuable to others, others will now be more inclined to be their friend. If the lower-status friend wishes to retain their friendship with the newly-employed one, they might use these insults to potentially undermine the confidence of their friend in a subtle way. It’s an indirect way of trying to ensure the high-status friend doesn’t begin to think he’s too good for his old friends.
Such a strategy could be risky, though. If the lower-status party can no longer offer the same value to the higher-status one, relative to their new options, that might also not be the time to test the willingness of the higher-status one to tolerate insults. At the same time, times of change are also precisely when the value of reassessing relationship strength can be at its highest. There’s less of a risk of a person abandoning a friendship when nothing has changed, relative to when it has. In either case, the assessment and management of social relationships is likely the key for understanding the tolerance of insults from friends and intolerance of them from strangers.
“Enjoy your new job, sellout. You used to be cool”
This analysis can speak to another interesting facet of insults as well: they’re directed towards the speaker at times, referred to self-deprecating humor when done in jest (and just self-deprecation when not). It might seem strange that people would insult themselves, as it would act to directly threaten their own status. That people do so with some regularity suggests there might be some underlying logic to these self-directed insults as well. One possibility is that these insults do what was just discussed: signal that one doesn’t hold themselves in high esteem and, accordingly, signal that one isn’t “too good” to be your friend. This seems like a profitable place from which to understand self-depreciating jokes. When such insults directed towards the self are not made in jest, they likely carry additional implications as well, such as that expectations should be set lower (e.g., “I’m really not able to do that”) or that one is in need of additional investment, relative to the joking kind.
References: Daly, M. & Wilson, M. (1988). Homicide. Aldine De Gruyter: NY.