11 min read

banter in the workplace

Offensive workplace banter - what's that all about?

This week, I used some covid-given free time to finish HBO’s take on the Iraq War - Generation Kill. It’s based on a book of the same name by Evan Wright, a Rolling Stone journalist who witnessed Operation Iraqi Freedom from the back seat of a Humvee, after a company of marines let him tag along for the ride.

If you were to lend the boxset to Freud, he’d tell you that it was one big story of sexual frustration. The marines – even the officers – are desperate for “action” and “to be in the game” and for the enemy to “git sum”.

The trouble is that the “game” that the marines had prepared for is over so quickly; Saddam’s conventional forces disappear, and no-one’s prepared for that to have happened so soon. No-one’s had their fill of action.

The response of the marines (right the way up the chain of command) to this changed scenario is simply to pretend that the game hasn’t ended: significant numbers of Saddam’s Republican Guard are always said to be just around the corner; and so the rules of engagement are kept loose; and you end up with artillery strikes on inhabited hamlets being considered proportionate responses to suspected hostile activity.

You feel quite sorry for the marines (though sorrier for the Iraqis). These guys were asked to navigate delicate and morally blurred situations with an invasion attitude, one of maximum aggression. What results, of course, is a complete shitshow where marines needlessly kill civilians.

The /r/USMC (US Marine Corps) subreddit is full of praise for the realism of the series. In particular, the subreddit users (unclear if actual marines or people pretending to be actual marines) approved of its fast and foul dialogue.


Seen it a few times, and it's been the most technically accurate piece of modern military film I've seen in a while.

Honest portrayal of servicemen, including their language and mannerisms, is refreshing. There's still a slight undertone of "We shouldn't have been here, I told you so" from the producers, but it's so muted that it hardly mars the series.

The dialogue is dead on as are the majority of the uniforms, IMHO.


It’s a pretty accurate portrayal of normal interactions between Marines in an operational environment. I think the specific behavior of a few of the officers may have been a little overstated or overacted to get the point across in a condensed format, but as far as the conversations and day-to-day existence it was spot on.

Here we have a workplace where no-holds-barred, offensive banter is celebrated as an important part of working life.

There aren’t many of these workplaces left. Where once the sun never set on the banter empire (see the noughties and the UK Office), we are now well into the gloaming of the cruel-banter-at-work era.


Along with the military, the hospitality industry outside of London is one of the banter holdouts, raging against the dying of the light. I interviewed a chef (white man, late-30s) and a restaurant manager (white woman mid-30s), and the atmosphere in restaurants seemed pretty close to the atmosphere in a Humvee.

The restaurant manager:

There is no boundaries. You're spending 14/15 hours a day together. No boundaries remaining there. Half of the kitchen staff is shagging half of the front of house staff. It doesn't matter which establishment. Any. I'm telling you as a fact it is happening, like all of them [the staff] are interconnecting. Let's say they cross paths, oh, that's causing tension, that's causing name-calling, that's causing this and that…

… I started hospitality when I couldn't speak English, so these things didn't really strike [me], because I was glad I understood what I needed to understand for my work, let alone what they are chatting [about]? At one point, you're happy to understand the joke. You don't care how appropriate or inappropriate that is. Also, coming from Eastern Europe when there is up until today still, it's okay to joke about someone being gay, someone being black, someone being even a female. It's okay. Up until today. So imagine 10 years ago, I was really not in the mindset of finding any of these things offensive. Not a sexual innuendo, not a sexist joke, even towards women. I didn't.

To be fair, I'm still not really getting offended about it. Because - come on! - have a sense of humour. I was just happy to understand the jokes and laughing with it. I didn't care who we were hurting, especially if that minority wasn't even present.

Working in different establishments, and different places, you see [that] everywhere you go, this is the case. It doesn't matter where you go, this is the case.

The chef:

The things what a lot of people outside the trade don't realise... I would say 85% of chefs are either alcoholics, drug addicts or got a gambling problem. So they've always got to work and [he laughs] they never let you down because they need the money. It's... it's a funny old game. And it's a funny old mix of people. Most chefs is slightly off their head anyway. It's a real funny industry. [he laughs]

You can guarantee all the ones that are in their 20s that want to party and do want to go out, they're going to be in the next morning, whatever state they're in, they will be there and they'll be able to do a job.

[Did you you ever treat it like that?]

Yeah, pretty much [he laughs]. I lost one marriage because of it so... The cheffing. The lifestyle. Tempted by younger waitresses and stuff. It's not a great mix to be in when you're trying to have family and stuff.

[Talking about Anthony Bourdain’s book, Kitchen Confidential] Yeah, yeah, pretty much. It's still the same. I don't think it's really changed. I think maybe it's a little bit lower key with all the racial stuff. How things are: you can't upset anybody with what you say. Whereas 10/15 year ago, it was a bit more like that, tongue in cheek, but not much [more low key] - it's maybe tamed down a little bit.

Behaviour in kitchens is changing – both interviewees spoke about the younger generation being less tolerant of racist and sexist behaviour – but it’s changing at a much slower rate in hospitality than in other industries. Where other workplaces have picked up the boundary rope that defines acceptable behaviour and moved it closer in, restaurants have given the rope only a cursory inward nudge.

What is it about working in the restaurant industry (or being in the armed forces) that leads you to participate in a culture of offensive banter?

I’m aware that the term “offensive banter” is thick with potential questions (offensive to whom? what does “offensive” mean? etc.). I’m reluctant to answer these questions. I don’t think it would be particularly edifying for anyone to watch me scrabble around in the mucky trenches of the culture wars, trying to define what is and what isn’t offensive.

Nevertheless: “offensive banter” is a joke, or system of jokes, that your average person would find offensive because of some combination of the following:

  1. The joke refers to something that the victim of the joke is insecure about, and those telling/laughing at the joke are aware of that insecurity. And/or
  2. The joke refers to a protected characteristic (age / disability / gender reassignment / marriage and civil partnership / pregnancy and maternity / race / religion or belief / sex). And/or
  3. The joke is made with the intention to harm the victim, and that intention is observable. And/or
  4. The joke punches downwards: in the context in which the joke is made, the joke-maker is more powerful than the victim.

You can dial these up or down depending on your politics.

NB I’m aware that trying to explain jokes by writing a typology of banter is also, in its own sneery metropolitan way, highly offensive. Je suis désolé.

As for the restaurants: there are several socio-economic reasons for the survival of banter culture:

  1. This is a gendered industry. Men tend to work in the kitchens. Women tend to work front of house.
  2. This is also a stressful industry – long hours, dangerous equipment, high expectations, a macho culture, low pay, high rates of addiction, low status, high staff turnover, few graduates etc..
  3. Restaurants are often small, without enough revenue to support a formal HR function.
  4. And, finally, few staff are members of unions.

This means that the forces that have led to more respectful workplaces across the rest of the economy (HR, less gendered workplaces, less workplace drinking) are weaker in the restaurant industry.

But I think this is only half the story. It explains why things haven’t changed vis-à-vis banter, but it doesn’t explain why my interviewees delighted in that lack of change. This, I think, can only be explained by the role that offensive banter plays in shaping cultural identity.

Anthropologists use jokes as routes to understanding cultures. Their reasoning is as follows: a culture is a system of signs (images, grammar rules, words, facial expressions etc.) that have shared meanings between a group of people. A joke is a good way of testing the boundaries of a culture, because if you don’t understand the joke and others do, then that suggests you do not share the same system of meaning as the joke-getters, you don't share their culture.

Joke-getting, then, is a symptom of becoming part of a culture/tribe. This was the Restaurant Manager’s experience:

At one point, you're happy to understand the joke. You don't care how appropriate or inappropriate that is.

But why do the jokes have to be offensive?

Jokes and tribes

The offensiveness seems to elevate this tribe/culture-forming experience.

First, the offensive banter distinguishes the kitchen from other spaces in the restaurant (the staff aren’t talking to customers in this way), and from other workplaces. That distinction makes the culture among the staff seem special. It becomes a big thing to gain membership of the kitchen culture.

Second, there’s an element of pleasure-heightening subversion. I can’t remember where I read this, but apparently the quickest way to bond with someone is to engage them in a shared conspiracy. This feels true. How many love stories begin with a couple sneaking out of an event (“We met at this conference. It was so boring that we decided to sneak out. And we had the most magical time…”)?

Both my interviewees were aware that typical restaurant staff banter would be considered unacceptable by most, yet they revelled in subverting society’s expectations for a workplace. It’s like the hospitality industry sees itself as having snuck out of a boring “political correctness in the workplace” conference.

Third, there’s a power/class thing going on. Chefs see themselves as mistreated by wider society:

[lack of respect for chefs] That's probably one subject that a lot of us chefs talk about between ourselves. I know we only go to college for one or two years - whatever. But say an electrician or a plumber, when they're qualified and trained they're on 15/16 an hour plus, aren't they? Whereas the chef finds it hard.
But I do think the industry is changing. I think COVID has helped...it's made all these businesses open their eyes and realise that chefs are worth their weight in gold. And there's a lot of places around my local area, they've had to shut and not do any food because they've lost all their chefs. And they've thought, "Shit, you know, we've treated them like shit all these years, and now we've got no one and we can't even make any money." Because, you know, there's no revenue in booze. They don't make jack shit on booze, that's like 52% GP, innit? Whereas food is 65 at least.

Chefs feel like they’re doing a highly skilled job, and that this fact has not been reflected in their pay and working conditions over the past 20 years.

One response to perceived mistreatment is to revel in it: “If society thinks I’m the lowest of the low, then I’m going to behave like I’m the lowest of the low. Why should I make an effort to change my behaviour when no-one’s made any effort with me?” So, you roll around in the muck, and dish out the offensive banter, and in so doing you stick it to the man.

Stress relief

And, finally, aside from juicing up the tribe forming process, offensive banter also seems to be a mechanism for handling stress. It’s probably not a particularly good one, but it’s a mechanism nonetheless.

This mechanism operates on an immediate physical level; the act of swearing is said to relieve stress.

It also operates through ritual: the offensive banter is like a puppet fight between restaurant staff.

It’s a ritual where stressed staff members can communicate their frustrations with one another according to a set of rules.

Say the kitchen is frustrated with the chef de partie because he’s not pulling his weight: the banter culture permits everyone to call him a “lazy XYZ”. It’s a low-risk communication channel, through which you can deal with difficult issues without people getting upset (so long as those dishing the banter out have no obvious malicious intention – as that would break the rules and would be seen as crossing the line).

This isn’t limited to the workplace. Lots of people can only discuss serious emotional issues through the banter ritual!


The culture of offensive banter plays important roles, in the formation of culture and identity, in relieving stress. These roles are particularly important to those who work long hours in stressful jobs. Hospitality is an industry of stress and long hours:

You're just in a vicious cycle. Because even if you put your family aside, you would still be doing, say, 60 hours a week. If you were lucky enough to get two days off, your first day off you're burnt out anyway, because the hours you work, then you would want to go to the pub or go out or something on the next day off. So then you go back into your working periods, hanging and run down immediately because you're not rested. There's no… there's no chance to have any real time off.

The people that work in hospitality don’t de-stress at home, nor do they have enough time to build an identity that exists outside of their work. They finish late, spend the rest of the night drinking with their colleagues, and then are back at work early. It’s an immersive industry, like soldiering or investment banking.

It’s no wonder then that people who work in hospitality are so attached to the existing culture in their workplaces, because that culture goes to the root of their identity.

I should say that I don’t think offensive banter plays these identity-forming and stress-relieving roles particularly well. Other things could play those roles better, without causing as much harm to others (those restaurant staff that are excluded and victimised, and those on the outside who feel offended upon learning about the existence of this culture). The harm > the utility.

There is, then, a moral argument for getting rid of it. But to get rid of it you must be alive to the fact that it is more than just banter. The offensive banter is a weed, an above-ground expression of the deep and complex root system that is identity/culture. You can’t just pick that weed up and expect it not to grow back; you need to do something with the roots!

Things that’d probably work:

  1. Better working conditions for chefs.
  2. More women working in restaurant kitchens.
  3. More sleep, less drinking.
  4. Focus on the artistry of cheffing and hospitality. Celebrity chefs these days seem to express their authentic self through their food. Their menus are representations of their childhood / their national identity etc. This is a good thing and a far cry from the 1990s, where classically-trained celebrity chefs were all cooking pretty similar food. They had to find other outlets for their personalities (read: cocaine and womanising). Macho competition was the name of the game. Marco Pierre White once made Gordon Ramsey cry!
  5. Send restaurant staff on secondment to the kitchens of Buddhist monasteries. Cooks are very important in Zen monasteries, and I’m fairly sure the monks manage to get by without much shouting or racism or sexism. For those interested, here’s a Zen manual from the 13th century called “Instructions to the Cook”.

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