But even though I can understand it on an intellectual level, I do not understand it on an emotional level or an interpersonal level. Nor do I necessarily consider this inability to be a positive quality in myself. If I were better able to understand the difference between good-natured teasing and mean-spirited bullying, I might have been able to spare myself a lot of anxiety and hurt feelings over the course of my life.
I was thinking about this today, and it reminded me of something that happened when I was a sophomore in college/university. That year, (the fall semester in the year 2000, to be exact) I took Physics 101. It was a combined lecture and lab course, and we worked in lab groups of four. My group consisted of myself, my friend Mike B., a guy named Jeff and another guy named Mike whose last name I can no longer remember. For the purposes of this story, I will refer to the Mike whose last name I can no longer remember as "Other Mike".
Mike B. was already acquainted with Jeff and Other Mike, but I had never met either of them prior to that semester. Generally speaking, they seemed like reasonably decent guys. Jeff was an RA in the building where I lived, so I got to know him a little bit outside of class. Other Mike was (nearly) always very friendly and polite to me. It seemed that Jeff and Other Mike were old friends, but their friendship seemed to consist entirely of a constant barrage of insults and abuse.
It was very clear that they didn't mean to be unkind or hurt anyone's feelings. They constantly exchanged these awful-sounding insults, but they did so in a jocular tone of voice, with smiles on their faces, and it was only to one another that they said these nasty things. However, knowing that they didn't mean to hurt anyone's feelings didn't make it any easier to listen to. They weren't telling jokes, they weren't saying things that were funny or clever that one might guiltily laugh at. It was just stupid insults all the time.
It was relentless and it made physics class extremely uncomfortable for both Mike B. and me. Both of us knew that this was just the peculiar way that the two of them expressed friendship, but knowing that didn't ameliorate the situation at all. Finally one day Mike B. and I decided to have a talk with Jeff and Other Mike to let them know how we felt about the situation and to ask them to please lay off one another while we were all in class together trying to conduct physics experiments. I think Mike B. and I succeeded in being calm and reasonable, and I think that eventually Jeff understood where we were coming from. Other Mike didn't seem to get it at all; he explained to us that he and Jeff didn't mean the things they were saying, and we (Mike B. and I) explained to him that it didn't matter whether they meant it or not, it still made us very uncomfortable to have to listen to it day in and day out. I don't think Other Mike ever understood our point of view; I think that he thought that Mike B. and I were being overly sensitive and that it was none of our business. Nevertheless, eventually both Jeff and Other Mike agreed to try to lay off each other and be civil during physics class. However, to Other Mike that meant treating Jeff with an exaggerated superciliousness, a preposterous politeness, rather than treating him with the same courtesy that he showed to Mike B. and myself. Mike B. seemed to think this was an improvement, but to me it was just as bad. if not worse. For one thing, it came across as condescending, and to me condescension is just as offensive as outright insults. Moreover, for the first time it seemed to me that Other Mike was targeting Mike B. and me as well as Jeff, like he was saying to us, "If you want politeness, I will give you politeness with a VENGEANCE!"
If I am correct in my assessment that Other Mike thought that Mike B. and I were being overly sensitive, I will concede that he might have had a point, but I will not concede that it was none of our business because the two of them made it our business. Outside of class was one thing; I would never have presumed to ask them to behave a certain way outside of class. But like it or not, the way that they behaved in class affected the whole group. At best it was a distraction; at worst it created (or contributed to) a hostile environment. To this day, I cannot understand why they couldn't just have been civil to each other for a lousy hour and a half per day, two days per week. I do not think that was too much to ask.
They both got into it, but it seemed to me that Other Mike was always the aggressor and Jeff always on the defensive. Maybe I'm just projecting, but it seems to me that Jeff could have done without just as well without it. But I suppose if it had really bothered him, he could have said something or just stopped hanging out with Other Mike.