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Sociability • Friendship

The Friend Who Can Tease Us

Nadia, as happens not infrequently, has just texted to suggest a different nearby place to meet – and to announce she’s running ‘circa twenty-seven minutes late’. It’s not literally unbearable of course but it does irk Ilya, even though he’s very fond of her. So he texts her back …

Let’s home in on a peculiar – and significant – problem with being human: we’re thin skinned. We hate being criticised. We can’t stand having our defects pointed out directly. Yet, so obviously, we all have defects that we’re not good at detecting for ourselves but which others can instantly spot. Inevitably, there are harder truths we need to hear. Together these two facts create one of the most maddening paradoxes of the human condition: there are really important, difficult things we should understand about ourselves and that we are really bad at taking on board and doing anything about. 

Ilya writes: … Very dear madame Turgenev, I’ll be so honoured to greet your beautiful spirit whenever it alights in any cocktail bar on planet Earth. 

Teasing at its immature worst means mocking things another can’t do anything about. But there’s a more artful, adult version, in which humour is recruited to sweeten the task of correction. This is one of the great works of friendship.

17th century painting of a lute player by Frans Hals.
Frans Hals, The Lute Player, 1623-5

Teasing, between friends, responds to the huge moral conundrum: how to deliver an awkward truth in a pleasant way; how to get the target of a criticism to embrace a lesson without feeling humiliated. 

Nadia will understand. She and Ilya were both fans of Turgenev’s novels when they studied together in Grenoble; the celebrated 19th century writer was notoriously hard to pin down for social occasions and had a habit of being late for everything. But at the same time it’s not really very hurtful to be compared (even in a failing) to one of the finest literary stylists of, as they like to call it, The Bourgeois Epoch.  

One doesn’t say – you are awful. That gets nowhere. And yet the objection must be launched. Ideal teasing wraps the critical barb not in flattery but in authentic appreciation. If finds the point of reference that’s alluring to the other but which can still communicate dissatisfaction. The best teasers make their affection for, and appreciative understanding of, us entirely plain in the same breath as they pinpoint a failing. The best teasing is mutual:

Ilya – it can be fairly said – sometimes shies away from stating clearly what he thinks; if Nadia asks him what he thought of a film or a book he’ll hedge his reply; she’d love him to be a little more forthright. It’s not horrendous, but it’s annoying to Nadia, because she really wants to meet his authentic views. At such moments she’s taken to calling him the Professor of Prevarication. The barb – stop beating about the bush – is enfolded in the playful intellectual flattery of a high sounding academic title; he’s enticed to greater directness rather than shamed for his diffidence. 

The world is littered with the corpses of friendships that died because two people couldn’t tease one another effectively. In the Utopia, how to tease well’ would be one of the key areas of academic study and of education. 

The need friendship meets: someone who can alert us to small but real defects without hurting us so much that we run away.

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