Science of People - Logo

Be an Expert at Witty Banter…How to Charm With Your Words

Lighthearted banter could be the secret to disarming someone in your first interaction. Research shows that banter-related humor helps people feel more relaxed while getting to know each other. Breaking the ice with light jokes or good-natured teasing can help you come across as more approachable, lighthearted, and not too serious about your public image. 

What is Witty Banter? (Definition)

Witty banter is a playful, clever, or humorous conversation technique to spice up your interactions and build rapport quickly. Witty replies usually make for more interesting conversations. A little bit of teasing can also signify trust and intimacy between people who see each other as equals. 

However, banter should never be rude, offensive, or condescending. There is a crucial balance between mild teasing or sarcasm and crossing the line into insulting remarks. 

Watch our video below to learn how to be more interesting:

How to Use Witty Banter in Conversation

Bantering is unique to different situations and personalities, making it more of an art than a science. Fortunately, you don’t need to be a comedian to come up with witty responses. Use these guidelines to keep banter friendly and fun while ensuring that you don’t offend anybody.

Understand different types of banter 

Different bantering styles may work better depending on your personality and the person you are bantering with. 

The key types of bantering people use regularly can include:

  • Witty flirting
  • Mild sarcasm
  • Self-deprecating humor
  • Playful teasing
  • Goofy responses

For example, in this clip from The Adjustment Bureau, you can see that David (Matt Damon) and Elise (Emily Blunt) are using a combination of witty flirting, self-deprecating humor, and playful teasing on a bus ride. 

YouTube video

Reddit user Zirzo spells out each of their unique approaches to the banter:  

David: What is it with you and the argive? (Invitation for banter with a slightly negative comment. The girl could escalate or come back with something negative and not too offensive)

Elise: What is the deal with you and the dull shades of blue? (Choose to play along; says something mildly negative back)

David: My clothes match (defensive reply, not a good one to keep the banter going)

Elise: Did your team pick that out for you or…. (again, slightly negative comment implying he doesn’t even have enough taste to pick his clothes and requires help from others)

David: No team is gone.

Elise: Wow (notices he is playing along)

David: Did it all by myself (get’s with the program and choose to escalate) (Coffee spilled, and the girl laughs, doesn’t get angry as she is having fun flirting here, and MD goes back to the defensive)

David: Oh, sorry don’t know what just happened here. I’ll pay for the dry cleaning (again, defensive, but he has nothing else to say here since it was his fault)

Elise: No, please don’t; it’s really fine (transactional statement, not part of the overall banter)

Elise: Wow (joking at the few dollars in his wallet)

David: (smiling) 7 bucks will probably cover it (reintroduces the element of banter by saying something funny and negative about himself related to the situation displaying to the girl he knows how to have fun and make fun of himself. And now both of them laugh together)

Elise: You keep that. You might need it.

David: Here, you can write down your number, and I can call you, and I can come to pick up your skirt (asking for her number but also making a funny comment to show he can take the conversation to edgier areas)

Elise: Oh goodness me (acknowledging that he has pushed the boundary of the conversation again)

Elise: That is very smooth (again, acknowledging that was a very smooth move)

Elise: Why don’t you let me spill some on you, and that way, we will be even (ending with teasing)

As you can see, the banter plays on the edge of teasing, flirting, and David (Matt Damon) making fun of himself to show he’s playing along. Remember that you don’t need to use all types of witty banter, but it helps recognize the differences between them in conversations. 

Try self-deprecating humor

When in doubt, the easiest way to banter is to start by poking a little fun at yourself. Research shows that leaders who can laugh at themselves with self-deprecating jokes are more likely to be trusted and admired by their employees. 

As opposed to aggressive humor (which makes fun of somebody else), self-deprecating jokes show that you are aware of your shortcomings and you don’t take yourself too seriously.

If you feel uncomfortable making witty remarks about someone else’s commentary, you can always crack a little joke about yourself to lighten the mood.

Celebrities use self-deprecating humor in witty banter all the time. Watch this old episode of the Tonight Show to see how Andy Richter and Conan O’Brien engage in goofy banter, making fun of themselves and teasing each other:

YouTube video

Conan: I think on TV I come across as a mean little punk, but in real life, I’m actually very large, tell them, very attractive (gestures to Andy to open the stage for Andy to tease him a bit)

Andy: Yeah, umm… Very attractive… I mean, you know, in sort of a (pauses for humor and uses hands to joke) gender-bending sort way

Conan: (laughs at the prod) I like how you struggled for a second, like ‘how can I put this delicately?’ and then… gender-bending! (Conan shows he is willing to play along but still pretends to be a little offended)

Andy: I mean, come on, wouldn’t he make a pretty girl? (Andy is obviously good friends with Conan, so he can)

Conan: (does a goofy face and blows a kiss to the camera to show he is still playing along) that’s my girl face who has a crush

Conan: (jokes more about his girl impersonation and then uses “conversational threading” to thread the discussion in a different direction and shift the banter to a cultural reference about The Three Stooges

And the banter continues. As you can tell, Conan’s initial self-deprecating jokes allow Andy to jump in with witty sarcasm about how Conan would make a pretty girl.

Instead of taking offense, he plays along, then takes that joke and runs it into a story about an old Three Stooges skit where they dress up as women and “meet” themselves. This is witty banter, conversational threading, and self-deprecating humor at its finest. 

Remember that too much self-deprecating humor can backfire and make you appear insecure or fake. But letting loose to joke a bit about yourself can open up the door for some lighthearted banter. 

Use a relaxation hack to take the pressure off

The whole point of banter is to let loose, right? It is almost impossible to joke around when you’re feeling tense. In your private space before heading out, try these relaxation hacks to take some pressure off: 

  • Shake it out: To release tension internally, you’ve got to let it out physically, too. Wiggle out your arms and legs like a little kid. Just shake it all out and let yourself be completely silly. 
  • Goofy noises: If you want to lighten up and feel a little more playful, try repeating some tongue twisters like “sally sells seashells by the seashore” and experimenting with goofy “ahhh” and “ooohhh” sounds. Actors use this technique to warm up their voices, making for a great opportunity to chuckle at yourself.

Just channel your inner Ron Burgundy: 

YouTube video
  • Deep breathing: Set a timer for 5 minutes and take long, slow inhales through the nose while counting to 10 seconds. Hold your breath at the top for 5 seconds, and then slowly exhale through the nose for another 10 seconds. 
  • Lip vibrating: Singers and musicians use this droning lip technique to loosen up their mouths and voices. It’s also fun to practice in the mirror to get a good laugh at yourself. Simply loosen your mouth and buzz your lips together like a horse nickering. 
  • Goofy faces: Make some funny faces in the mirror. 
  • Play your theme song: You know how performers and fighters use a walkout song to get amped on their way to the stage? Get hyped up and let loose before socializing by singing and dancing to your favorite “pump up” song

One conversation or one date is just that: one interaction! There is no need to put so much pressure on yourself to appear perfect in any regard. The person on the other end of the table is another human just like you. 

Pro Tip: If you feel nervous or insecure about bantering, remember that everyone has quirks about them. That’s what makes you unique! Not every person will like you or laugh at your banter, and that’s OK. It helps to remind yourself that most people are so focused on their insecurities that they aren’t even paying attention to yours. 

Diversify your knowledge of culture and topics

Consistently learning new things is the secret to engaging in conversation. The more you can expand your perspectives, the more you can relate to other people and exchange clever remarks during the conversation. 

If you find yourself in the same old routines of going to work, scrolling on social media, and playing video games, the bank of your conversation subjects (and potential clever jokes) might eventually run out. 

You may need to make some deposits into your knowledge base so you can withdraw more fun humor:

  • Keep up on news and cultural trends that you’re interested in
  • Watch more movies and talk shows, especially comedies 
  • Read books that stimulate conversation
  • Attend conferences and seminars 
  • Travel often and immerse yourself in new cultures
  • Make a learning bucket list to keep learning new things every day   
  • Try out a new social hobby
  • Get creative with a new creative pastime 
  • Watch movies people often quote so you can quote back to them. Nothing makes better banter than reliving your favorite movie scenes

Remember: a boring life ultimately leads to boring conversations. 

Create unanticipated associations between topics

When trying to be clever, the element of surprise is on your side. But you have to think quickly on your feet. If you can create unexpected connections between two things, you can be more creative and potentially humorous.

For example, in this speech, former president Barack Obama cracks an unexpected joke about smoked salmon to prove a point about the complexities of different government agencies:

Obama: 12 different agencies deal with exports. There are at least 5 different agencies that deal with housing policy. 

Obama: Then there’s my favorite example. The Interior Department is in charge of salmon in freshwater, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater.

Obama: I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked [laughter from crowd] 

YouTube video

Imaginative Exercise: Practice your association skills by putting your creativity to work. Grab a pen and paper, set a 1-minute timer, and then look at your surroundings. Fixate on a random object that catches your eye, and then quickly jot down all the possible things it reminds you of. 

For example, a cup of coffee could remind you of morning drives, pastries, or newspapers. A dog may remind you of a wolf, hiking, or childhood play. Practice this every day to increase your association skills!

Maintain open body language and a friendly tone

Tone and body language are different between a witty joke versus an awkward comment or accidental insult. 

For example, if you are meeting someone for a coffee and you say, “what are you doing here?” when they walk in the door, it could be interpreted differently depending on your body language and tone. 

If you have a small grin, raised eyebrow, cocked head, playful tone, and an outreached hand, the comment will come across as a joke. You are acting playfully surprised to see them. Obviously, you invited them to coffee, and you were expecting them. 

On the other hand, if you were to say the exact words with a serious low tone, stiff posture, and arms crossed, you’d probably confuse your friend or date and make it seem like you don’t want to see them.

Make sure your nonverbal communication matches the intention of your banter:

  • Use a fun, non-aggressive tone of voice
  • Genuinely smile or laugh while bantering (this shows you are joking around)
  • Maintain a relaxed, un-tense posture
  • Use microexpressions like raised eyebrows for a playful surprise during banter 
  • Keep your palms visible (this is a signal of trust and openness) 
  1. Add a splash of sarcasm

Sarcasm often has a negative connotation; however, recent research has shown that it can also increase creativity and social connection when used in the proper context.

You can infuse a little bit of sarcasm into your responses to break the ice and subtly tease someone about asking obvious questions:

Matt: “Where are you from?”

Jessica: “Florida”

Matt: “Oh, is it hot there?”

Jessica: “No, not at all” (sarcastic smile)

Matt: (laughs) “Oh, I didn’t think so.”

Action Tip: Be sure to understand the difference between hurtful sarcasm and playful, sarcastic comments. Sarcasm can come off as mean or hateful when misused, so be careful not to appear condescending with using this tip.   

Stay present

When you dwell too much in your thoughts during a conversation, you may feel too anxious to say anything witty.

Ruminating over past social situations takes you out of the present moment and makes it difficult to come up with a good comeback. The conversation keeps rolling on, and you could get lost in your thoughts, but it’s likely that nobody even remembers your offhand comment anyways.   

If you catch yourself over-analyzing something you said in a conversation, remind yourself that you only have the current moment. 

Try a few hacks to blast you into the present:

  • Close your eyes and take a few long, deep breaths
  • Notice your immediate surroundings: What does the setting look like? What is the temperature? What color are the walls? 
  • Do a quick sensory scan: What do you see, hear, taste, and touch at this moment? 

How to Use Witty Banter to Flirt 

When done correctly, banter can be a charming way to flirt and show off your humorous side. But if it’s done wrong, it can come across as awkward or even insulting.

If you want to use witty banter to flirt with a crush or date, remember these tips: 

  • Smile, wink, or grin often to keep your body language casual and fun.
  • Less is more. Leave some mystery and fun in an open-ended response.
  • Avoid being too logical can block your ability to come up with witty replies.
  • Twist seemingly negative associations to frame yourself in a positive light.
  • Keep teasing playful and avoid “negging”: Negging is making deliberately rude remarks, backhanded or hurtful. Some people think this can make people more attracted to you, but when done incorrectly, you risk turning someone off, or worse –  hurting their self-esteem. 
  • Don’t tease unless you are willing to be bullied in return.

For example, in this scene from the movie Closer, Larry and Alice repeatedly insult each other and their significant others. 

YouTube video

Alice: …So the exhibition is reassuring, which makes it a lie, and now we’re on love’s a big fat lie

Larry: I’m the big fat liar’s boyfriend

Alice: Bastard! (a sassy insulting remark that somehow works for this situation)

Larry: (extends his hand to introduce himself) Larry

Alice: (shakes his hand unenthusiastically) Alice

Alice: So you’re Anna’s boyfriend?

[conversation continues, and they joke about bad habits and smoking…]

Larry: Someone tells me your bloke wrote a book. Is it any good? (directly insulting her “bloke” boyfriend)

Alice: Of course (notice her sarcastic facial expression and tone as she plays along, not taking offense to his comment on her boyfriend)

Larry: It’s about you, isn’t it?

Alice: Some of me…

Larry: Oh, what did he leave out?

Alice: The truth

Larry: Is he here, your bloke?

Alice: Yeah, he’s over there talking to your bird (another jab at his girlfriend)

While it’s probably not best to flirt with people who are in relationships, the example serves to show how teasing can build tension. You can tell that both characters are confident enough to exchange subtle prods without getting offended. If you feel sensitive to teasing, you may want to avoid swapping this sort of banter. 

Action Tip: Learn how to flirt with banter by watching some classic romantic comedies that build sexual tension between two characters teasing each other. Examples are Some Like It Hot, Crazy Stupid Love, The Lovebirds, The American President, Pride & Prejudice, Notting Hill, or When Harry Met Sally.  

Make Great Conversation

Along with banter, do you know how to start a conversation, gracefully end it, avoid awkward silences, and, most importantly, make an impact? Learn everything you need to know on developing your self-improvement skills here:

Communicate With Confidence

Do you struggle with small talk? Do you often run out of things to say or feel awkward and self-conscious in social situations?

💪 Speak so people listen,
🤐 No more awkward silences,
🚫 No more small talk.

How to Use Banter in Text

Body language is important for disarming any teasing remarks, but it’s obviously not an option while texting. 

If you are texting, using emojis can be a great way to imply that this joke means to be teasing and not insulting. A tongue-face or winky emoticon are some of the best tools for bantering while texting.

For example, this play on the classic “hunk of meat” stereotype about good-looking men makes the guy seem confident yet remains playful thanks to the use of emojis:

Lindsey: “You are so fit. It looks like you hit the gym a lot. But obviously, looks aren’t everything ;).”

Jake: “Thank you, hopefully, that means you’re not going to see me as a piece of meat then?”

Lindsey: “LOL, I’m definitely not. But if you treat me like meat, I’ll treat you like a hunk of meat too😂”

Jake: “Well, if you plan to, at least use a BBQ marinade.” 

Lindsey: “Wow, how did you know that’s my favorite?😉”

How to React to Banter

The key to successful banter is to play along. When in doubt, it’s usually best to just laugh if you don’t know how to respond. 

For example, in this video, Ellen is bantering with Taylor Swift about whether or not she washes her legs in the shower.

YouTube video

Ellen: We’re back with Taylor Swift, who was just telling me about washing her legs in the shower. I couldn’t hear you. Did you say you do wash them, or you don’t?

Taylor: I do, because when you shave your legs, the shaving cream is like soap, right?

Ellen: So whenever you’re not shaving, you don’t wash, is what you’re saying?

Taylor: No, I don’t think I would say that.

Ellen: Well, it seems like you did just say that.

Taylor: I kind of always shave my legs.

Ellen: Every day?

Taylor: I mean, yeah.

Ellen: Every day?

Taylor: Yeah.

Ellen: God, you must be hairy! 

Taylor: (bursts out laughing to show she is playing along with the joke even though Ellen just subtly insulted her)

When things turn serious, they can get awkward or offensive pretty quickly. If someone is bantering with you or playfully teasing, try to avoid being defensive or too serious (unless the remarks are blatantly rude). 

Avoid These Mistakes with Witty Banter

Remember that banter is supposed to be fun and spontaneous. It shouldn’t be insulting or coarse. 

  • Don’t banter with strangers: The bantering best works for closer friends, coworkers, or second and third dates. If you don’t understand someone’s quirks or personality, you might accidentally insult them. 
  • Avoid bantering about common insecurities: For example, if you know your friend is self-conscious about her weight, it’s best to avoid jokes about food, dieting, or exercise. 
  • Don’t banter about controversial topics: Subjects like race, sexuality, stereotypes, or politics. You never know who might get offended.
  • Avoid backhanded compliments: Backhanded compliments are comments that sound nice on the surface but may actually imply something more offensive. 

For example:

  • “Oh wow, you’re on time for once!”
  • “I love that dress on you. I don’t have the curves to wear something like that.”
  • “Your house looks so clean today. I had no idea it was this nice.”
  • “I can’t believe you ate that whole meal.”

While “negging” used to be a way to flirt or joke with someone, studies show that intentionally breaking down someone’s confidence with sly jokes or teasing can actually cause more harm than good.

Pro Tip: If someone looks uncomfortable or embarrassed by your banter, it may signify that you’ve crossed the line and hurt their feelings. Use a genuine apology like “I’m sorry, I was just playing, and I didn’t mean to upset you” or “my bad, I crossed the line, and I apologize for insulting you.” 

Why Use Witty Banter? 

In its simplest form, banter helps put people at ease in conversation. Joking around and bantering may seem like precarious territory. Still, it is a valuable social skill that plays an important role in forming friendships, romantic connections, and even professional relationships.

Banter deepens your connections

The primary intention of banter is to create a closer connection with someone in conversation.  You most commonly hear banter amongst close friends in casual conversation. As you get to know someone, it becomes easier to tease and banter with them. It is a lighthearted way to build a bond.  

Witty remarks can come across as intelligent

Banter requires thinking on your toes and making associations between things that may not appear related. For example, you can use metaphors or reference a line from a movie. As a result, you can become more intellectual and knowledgeable, yet not as someone who takes themselves too seriously. 

Create intriguing conversation

Clever responses can spice up even the blandest conversation about the weather. If you want to have more memorable and intriguing conversations, banter is an innovative tool for threading topics together in an engaging way.

Build trust and intimacy

Research shows that people who share laughter like each other more. The ability to joke and banter is a clear sign of intimacy between people. You probably wouldn’t tease someone you don’t know, but once you delve a little deeper into a friendship, you can build trust with playful commentary.

Be flirtatious

Studies show that humor makes potential partners seem more sexually desirable, intelligent, and physically attractive. Even if you aren’t the funniest person around, you can use witty responses to make conversations more lighthearted, funny, and flirtatious. 

Pro Tip: While colleagues can accept playful banter, flirtatious teasing is typically inappropriate in the workplace. 

Key Takeaways: Banter Your Way to Lighthearted Conversation 

Banter is a cheerful and sometimes flirtatious way to open the doors for more comical and intriguing conversations. But good banter requires striking a balance between playful teasing and mutual respect.

A little bit of observation and preparation can help you loosen up for more fun chitchat: 

  • Practice different types of banter in different scenarios: You can use witty flirting, mild sarcasm, self-deprecating humor, playful teasing, and goofy responses separately or in combination to create a funny conversation. Remember that you don’t need to use every type of banter, and specific styles may fit your personality or the situation better than others. For example, being sarcastic with your boss may not be the best idea, but using a little bit of self-deprecating humor about your overly wordy emails can be more appropriate in the workplace. 
  • Observe banter in movies and TV shows: Celebrities and TV personalities tend to be well-versed in banter. If you want to learn more clever ways to go about bantering in conversations, watch romantic comedies or funny shows like Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Ellen Degeneres Show, F.R.I.E.N.D.S., or The Gilmore Girls
  • Use self-deprecating humor: Often, the easiest way to break the ice is to poke a little fun at yourself. Psychologists have found that this makes people trust you more because you demonstrate that you don’t take yourself too seriously. 
  • Maintain open body language: As long as everyone smiles and looks relaxed, it’s typically a sign that banter is on the right track. Open body language with a grin, lounging position, exposed palms, and/or laughter are the key to keeping banter lighthearted.
  • Banter with emojis in text: It can be difficult to tell when someone is joking over a text message. Emojis help lighten the mood and ensure that your banter is playful teasing rather than an insult.
  • Avoid bantering about controversial topics or insecurities: It’s important to read the room when it comes to banter. Don’t joke about issues that might offend or upset people, including race, politics, sexuality, weight, or stereotypes.

It may seem like bantering is reserved for people who are born funny, but it’s also a social skill that anyone can learn. Check out our guide on How to Be Funny: 7 Easy Steps to Improve Your Humor.  

How to Deal with Difficult People at Work

Do you have a difficult boss? Colleague? Client? Learn how to transform your difficult relationship.
I’ll show you my science-based approach to building a strong, productive relationship with even the most difficult people.

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Get our latest insights and advice delivered to your inbox.

It’s a privilege to be in your inbox. We promise only to send the good stuff.

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.