The Art And Joy Of Busting Someone’s Balls

There is no class in high school or college on how to insult a friend in an endearing manner. If there were, it would be an elective, a class only of value to a certain subset of people, not a mandatory course—because, like quantum physics, it’s not for everyone. But those who learn it can do wonderful things with it.

At some point in life, earlier for some than others, we have an opportunity to learn and practice this skill, which has various names, including, but not limited to:

  • Busting someone’s balls
  • Breaking someone’s balls
  • Giving someone shit
  • Busting someone’s chops
  • Giving someone a hard time

The figurative busting of someone’s figurative balls is a delicate art, requiring first and foremost previous rapport with the person whose balls you are trying to bust. You cannot simply walk up to a stranger on the street and begin making fun of their shirt because it’s too tight. This can result in hurt feelings, arguments, and even fistfights. If you have been friends with someone for years, the same insult is far more acceptable.

Scene 1: Son and father, 1992

Brendan’s father: Does your face hurt?
Brendan: No, why?
Brendan’s father: It’s killing me.

Perhaps surprisingly to non-practitioners, busting someone’s balls is a convoluted way of saying “I love you,” or maybe less directly than that, “I’m so glad we’re good enough friends that I can say semi-nasty things to you.” Everyone says “I love you” to people; it takes a creative, and sometimes thoughtful, person to say it in a different way. It takes a very special person to make the recipient laugh, feel loved, and insulted, all at the same time.

When busting someone’s balls, it is OK to base your insult on some degree of truth. But the more truth an insult contains, the higher the chance it will actually hurt someone’s feelings. Personality and perceived character flaws should be considered fair game, but personal flaws should not. i.e., it is OK to make fun of someone for being terrible at parallel parking, but not their weight problems, hair loss, or a recent breakup. Often times, but not always, the more absurd an insult, the funnier it is.

Scene 2: Restaurant, October 2000. Two young waiters. One enters the restaurant and clocks in for his 5 p.m. shift, as the other waiter, who has been working since 4 p.m., greets him.

Jayson: Hey Brendan, how are you, man?
Brendan: Doing great, man.
Jayson: Well, you look like shit.
(both young men laugh)

In general, the longer you’ve known someone, the more harsh your ball-busting insults can be. For example, you would not walk up to a co-worker’s desk during their first week on the job and make fun of their taste in music—but if you’ve been working together for a year and have had discussions about your dislike for death metal and their love for death metal, it is OK for you to give them shit about listening to death metal. By busting their balls, you are not implying that death metal is inherently bad; rather, you are making a joke about a vast difference in your taste in music and how despite it, you’re still friends/friendly. If you have known someone for a very long time, you can be very coarse with them.

Scene 3: Grand Canyon Coffee & Cafe, Williams, Arizona, May 19th, 10 a.m.

Lady at adjacent table: “You gentlemen have a good rest of the day.”
Guy #1, in his late 60s: “And you too, Ben.”
Guy #2, also in his late 60s: “I never have anything but a good day.”
Guy #1: “She said ‘gentlemen.’”

If you are doing it right, everyone will remain friends. Your friend will reply to your insult with their own insult, and things will move along. Sometimes you will have an entire conversation only consisting of insults. This is OK. There is no better time than the present to tell someone you love them—especially by insulting their current fad diet or taste in dress shirts.

Scene 4: Restaurant, March 2015. Three men, mid-30s. All three have been close friends for a decade and a half.

Brendan: Happy birthday, asshole. You’re late.
Jayson: I can’t help it, the Uber driver was late. Why don’t you ever give Nick shit about being late? He’s late all the time.
Brendan: That guy hasn’t been on time in four years. You, we still have some hope for.
Nick, shaking head: Should we order some samosas?

If you are doing it wrong, things will be awkward. The recipient of your insult will react by trying to defend themselves, and you might as well nip things in the bud and apologize. If you have to immediately follow your insult with the phrase, “I’m just giving you shit,” you have blown it. Busting someone’s balls is a balance of truth and humor. Enough humor, and not too much truth.

Comedian Jeffrey Ross has built a career from busting people’s balls, hosting Comedy Central’s roasts of celebrities, branding himself the “Roastmaster General,” and authoring the book “I Only Roast the Ones I Love: Busting Balls Without Burning Bridges.” In a 2011 interview in the Province newspaper, he talked about the art of roasting someone, saying, “You don’t want to be a bully. You don’t want to pick on people that aren’t up for it. You want everyone to leave the show going, ‘That was so much fun. I wish I’d been roasted.’ To me, that’s the key, is to have everybody think of it as a party and not as competitive or mean. You want everyone to feel like they’re Frank Sinatra surrounded by the Rat Pack. You don’t want them to feel like a deer about to get shot.”


[Photo by Deutsche Fotothek/Wikimedia Commons

4 replies on “The Art And Joy Of Busting Someone’s Balls

  • Zaid

    Another classic article Brendan. Thanks for making me laugh. Pity that some people don’t get it and take offence (the recipient) or say inappropriate things (person making the remark). Timing is also key!

  • Bob D

    Ball-busting is also a staple of any decent road trip. Every few hours, someone needs their nuts cracked just to break up the monotony.

  • Eric O'Rafferty

    Yes, there is a fine line of balance you have to walk with this kind of back and forth. It’s a very male activity, not really seen with women much. Very prevalent in my father’s and grandfather’s generations for whom displays of emotion were often seen as “unmanly.” So giving each other shit can be a guy’s way of saying “I love you” to one another. But guys don’t say that, do they? Maybe the “I love you man!” variation is ok nowadays but it’s still tinged with irony and humor.

    Glad you recognize the balance. Its good fun when done right, buy t’s easy to creep over the line into a kind of muted cruelty, especially when between close relatives. Give yer buds shit, but find a way to tell them you love them too. You won’t regret it!

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