No Offense, But I Was Just Kidding: Dealing with Mean Jokes

By | August 15th, 2010 | 34 comments

“When girls say ‘just kidding,’ what percentage of the time are they really joking?” It’s one of my favorite questions to ask girls, and I rarely hear numbers in double digits.

That’s because “just kidding,” and its cousin, “no offense,” are phrases girls (and guys, though less frequently) use to hurt each other without having to own up.

The phrases seem fairly innocuous, cute little jabs that aren’t supposed to leave a mark. They allow you to say something mean and still appear to be a likable Good Girl. Adults often ask me why it’s not enough to respond, “That’s not funny!” Partly because there is a social script kids use in situations like this. If you fight back against a mean joke, you’re likely to hear retorts like, “What’s your problem? Can’t you take a joke? I was just kidding! You’re taking it the wrong way,” and so on. The hurt girl is silenced. She has learned that if she doesn’t go along with the joke, she’ll lose membership in her group.

To be sure, not every instance of “just kidding” should raise our hackles. Teasing is often healthy and fun, not to mention an important part of interpersonal and individual development. But when it’s abused, “just kidding” contains a disturbing logic: If I didn’t mean it, it didn’t happen.

To understand this more clearly, consider that every act of aggression can be divided into two parts: intent and impact. Intent first refers to what you meant when the aggression occurred; impact, to what actually happened. The meaning behind “just kidding” is: if I didn’t intend to hurt you, the impact didn’t occur. If I was just kidding, or I didn’t mean it, I can’t get in trouble. You can’t be mad at me. You can’t not be my friend. And so on.

This logic is dangerous for two reasons. First, true respect in relationship means respecting others’ feelings. In other words, we can’t tell someone else how she should feel. Only you get to say if you’re hurt or not. Second, the logic allows kids to deny responsibility for rude behavior. “Just kidding” also compromises girls’ integrity because it allows girls to project a “nice” image, even as they make disrespectful remarks.

If you’re a girl with a friend who makes mean jokes, try this:

Ask her to respect your feelings. Tell the joker that just because she didn’t mean it, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Sure, you understand she didn’t mean it, but you  need her to respect the fact that it hurt you. If she says, “you took it the wrong way,” remind her that everyone takes jokes differently and people are sensitive about different things. Teach her the NJZ (see below).

Ask her what’s really bothering her. Girls who use jokes to be nasty are often hiding other feelings they are struggling to express. Ask her if she’s okay and if there is anything you need to talk about to clear the air.

If you’re a parent or teacher and have a “just kidding” epidemic at home or in your classroom, try this:

Define the behavior as a form of aggression. It’s not just a joke. Affirm that you find the behavior inappropriate and compare it to a type of aggression she already understands: overt insults, hitting, etc.

Create consequences. Explain that if you continue to hear “just kidding” used as a way to be mean, there will be a consequence—loss of a privilege for a period of time, for example.

Look in the Mirror. Do you use humor as a way to take swipes? The girls in your life are watching and listening. She will follow the right example if you set it.

Create a No-Joke Zone (NJZ) in your home or classroom. Establish the NJZ as a code that anyone, adults or kids, can use to draw the line. The NJZ creates a new script, and the protocol goes like this: When someone makes a joke that crosses the line and an NJZ is called, the other person must apologize – sincerely, not “sorrreeeee!” – and the subject must be changed.

As my Mom always said, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Using definition,  positive alternatives and consequences for girls will help foster critical truth-telling skills and make them more trustworthy, honest young people to boot.

34 Responses to “No Offense, But I Was Just Kidding: Dealing with Mean Jokes”

  • Chloe says:

    I have a large group of friends who tend to be really snarky and rude to everyone within our group. As of late I have become worn out by the constant bashing on each other because, we are supposed to be friends. They will bash on one girl and completely tear her down with everyone but, that one individual and as soon as she is there we act like it never happened and we are all best friends. I am sick of it to the point where I called them out on it. My best friend is really sweet and is desperate for friends since half the group goes to one school and the other goes to mine. Should I stay in the group that way I won’t be putting my friend in the awkward situation where people will want her to pick sides or should I just move on ? SOS from that random High Schooler!!!!!

  • Heartweaver says:

    My husband regularly tormemts me with things that I am afraid of. I have told him to stop but he wouldn’t. My friend thinks he’s a jerk with no consideration for my feelings and to consider turning the tables to teach him some empathy. He’s good to me in all other ways but I have to admit that he is a jerk. What should I do about him? Is a revenge prank the only way for him to learn?

  • BB says:

    A close friend, whom I’d known for more than 20 years, frequently made inappropriate personal jokes. I’d always wondered if they were insults in disguise or issued to upset me. He often cracked such jokes when I had something major going on in my life.

    I always just laughed them off and told myself that he meant nothing by it.

    When another close friend died a few months ago, I grieved terribly. I posted a photo of him on Facebook. This other friend made an inappropriate joke about my friend’s appearance in the comment section.

    Then, three weeks ago, my husband and I took our dog out of town for surgery. A man at the motel started stalking me, would follow me every time I went out. One time, he was coming up to me as if he intended to grab me but someone scared him away. We figured out that he was running a prostitution (and possibly drug) ring from the motel. Our second day there, he and his gang started intimidation techniques–I think they thought we’d seen too much as we were taking our dog out frequently and seeing the traffic in and out of the rooms. To make a long story short, in fear of our lives, we fled the motel in the middle of the night.

    After hearing about this, my friend said: “You might have picked up a new career.”

    That was it. I was done with the relationship. He’d crossed a line. I was suffering major post traumatic stress from this event, and was still worried that that gang might come after us, because we’d seen too much. I had nightmares about it every night, and it still scares me.

    This friend’s crude comment revealed that he really had no consideration for my feelings or for what I’d gone through. Very likely, he was probably never a true friend. Looking back, I can’t imagine how I put up with him for so long.

  • […] No Offense But I Was Just Kidding: Dealing With Mean Jokes […]

  • Amanda says:

    I came to this website because of my new recent guy I was dating.I have two kids from my ex and he has one from his ex.It all started with no issues. However he makes the stupidest jokes or teases and says ‘just teasing’.And some time it concerns me because he would make jokes involving the kids.He would go ‘if Josh (his 5y/o son) doesn’t behave, I will throw him on the grill..nice cook out..’ And then follows that he’s teasing.As a mother I find any of teasing of kids so offensive and idiosy.Thank God we are no longer together

  • Maia says:

    I had a really …Unlady like, “friend” who used me, and she would insult me, my family, and then we would fight, then she would apologize and I would forgive her. Five times this has happened now. She’s been out of my life for 2 years and she’s coming back saying she wants to be friends and that she’s changed. I hate her guts but I don’t want to tell her. Because every time I would say something, jokingly, she got her panties in a bunch and freaked out saying I was being offensive, even though I wasn’t, and yet I never freaked out when she “jokingly” insulted my autistic brother! Maybe I should have, instead of beating up a freakin pillow.

    • Ellie says:

      That’s happening to me (not about your autistic brother that’s definitely out of line) after every hurtful thing she says it doesn’t wash off every time she says just kidding. She has called me a slut and a **** and I don’t know why I’m friends with her, she does make me laugh sometimes but that doesn’t overpower the jokes (that aren’t really jokes). I’m stuck in a position whether I should just say something but if I say it wrong it could cost me all my other friends… It’s a deathtrap but in friendships. She does apologise and I then basically have to forgive her or I’m normally left out of everything however she is still sadly in my life

  • Cindy says:

    I was looking for some information on someone who says ‘just kidding’ all the time at work. it’s so annoying, how often she says it all day long, its like are you ever serious and it makes me think how many times a day she is ‘just kidding’. I was going to try and count one day, but I’m really tired of hearing her talk all day long. And I have seen her do this in a negative way, to say something in a joking manner, that could be offensive and aggressive but she’ll add ‘just kidding’ at the end of it. I’d love to print this article and leave it at her desk!

  • Lilian says:

    Mine is messed up. My ex’s best friend has attacked me, punched my breasts (since he knew I had been sexually abused before) and has told me several demeaning comments about my body and what he thinks of me.
    And every time he says; Just kidding, it was a joke’ and people would accept it. And if I start about it, people feel like I’m overreacting. They’d say; ‘Leave our best friend alone, it was a joke.’
    There was even a moment in which he was hurting me and laying on top of me. I was crying, he laughed in my face and told me that it didn’t hurt and that I was overreacting. I kept on crying, and right after, he claimed to other that it had been a joke.
    And the people believed him, straight up. Because ‘He would never do such a thing.’
    Right when we were alone again, he would threathen to rape people I love. Which was ‘a joke’ as well. I broke up with the boyfriend because he stood up for his best friend and didn’t believe me.

    • Kennedy says:

      I’m so sorry about what happen to you Lilian. You seem like an amazing person and I just want to say just keep swimming. Things will get better I promise. Hang in there for me

    • Julia says:

      That is such a terrible thing to do. I am appalled that someone would do that. I am so sorry. Good for you though for breaking up with him, you don’t deserve that.

  • Mamabear says:

    A family member just commented on a picture of my newborn baby and said: “Scary lol jk cute kid” I feel it’s passive aggressive, and any person with two cents knows not to mess with a mama bear and her cub! :(

    • Alex says:

      People are so dumb !! Sorry they said that.

    • Julia says:

      I am so sorry that you were hurt by that. It sounds to me like they don’t really think that but it still could be taken the wrong way and they shouldn’t have done that. And how can a baby be ugly?

  • Melissa says:

    I was in the car with my foster sister and we were headed home and we were talking about me and my sisters, and then she lied and said me and her were sisters then a boy responded you two don’t look like sister then she said ” yeah duh because I’m pretty and she’s not, JUST KIDDING LOL”!

  • Elmare says:

    Hi I bought cookies for work, and I went and said “sjoe you almost ate everything up” and I said it in non offensive way and I smiled I wasn’t being mean. After that they were like “I didn’t like the way you said it” and I told them that I didn’t mean it that way it was really a joke and told them I was really sorry cause I felt bad. And still they didn’t believe me.

  • stella says:

    this i a comment on lisa’s post. while i like the idea of making kids resilient and able to handle harsh comments–i do think the intent of most people who say “just kidding” (and i sure have done it myself…) is usually to actually say something fairly nasty or harsh. or it wouldn’t feel nasty and harsh. i think there is gentle teasing, which doesn’t have a malicious intent–and then something stronger, which usually does. but i recognize some folks think ALL teasing is bullying. i really don’t know.

    i came on this site b/c my best friend (a male) of 24 years just said something very cruel, and followed it up with a just kidding. it think it is harshness on top of harshness. -i can be an ass to you, and then take away your right to be surprised and hurt by it so i dont have to take responsibility for it. quite an olympic event.

    i see women (and men) -myself included–do it b/c they can’t seem to express directly and seriously a thought, feeling, or concern so it comes out as something snide. we want to express it, but we choose a “funny” way to bring up the subject lightly. or we don’t want to admit we are concerned or worried or hurt, so we lash out in a just kidding tone. it usually fails. when really, taking the time to put it in serious words will have less of a harsh effect on the listener. and will give the listener a space to respond.

    forces me to re-examine my own style. never too late to learn.

  • Nicki says:

    This is very relevant to me. My Mother In Law lately says mean things to me and then says, “Just kidding,” and laughs. I googled how to respond to these horrible comments and ended up here reading this article. Thank you.

    One way to respond perhaps, is to ask the culprit to repeat what they said. So for example, you could say, “Excuse me? Would you repeat that please? I didn’t hear you?” It allows the culprit to re-examine what they said to you and to reflect on it. Chances are they will realise how mean they sound and check themselves in future.

    The other thing I think to realise is that their meanness is their problem, not yours.

  • […] “No Offense” from Rachel Simmons Written for teen girls, as an adult I still recognize the “joking” comments (and “LOLs”) behind some female communication. […]

  • Lisa says:

    I have seen children and just as many adults hurt by the “just kidding” behavior as well as cruel remarks passed off as “sarcasm.” A friend’s marriage fell apart because of this type of communication – verbal abuse in disguise. That being said, I have found a coping mechanism for myself in social circles where the “just kidding” or sarcasm remarks are hurtful but not persistent. That coping mechanism is asking myself, “was it their intent to humiliate/hurt me?” I believe some girls/women are overly sensitive and can lose the ability to laugh at themselves. I believe teaching girls to evaluate the intent of a joke or sarcastic comment helps train them to evaluate the intentions of their own jokes.

    I have had a lot of employees in my office upset or crying because of a joke someone played or said. I don’t condone abusive jokes or behavior but I do find it’s helpful to guide them through the process of deciding for themselves if that person’s intent was malicious. Learning how to work through conflict to forgive and forget is just as healthy as rehabilitating the behavior of those who inflict pain on others.

  • Belinda Gomez says:

    Don’t you think that girls and young women who face no real troubles (death, war, trauma, poverty) manufacture these hurts and slights? I think teaching girls to turn away from bullying is fine, but I think it’s far more important for your audience to understand how privileged they are. No young person living in a war zone worries about a nasty joke.
    After reading the NYT story, I wondered why you were so fixated on some silly 8 year old’s actions.
    Hardly the pioneer spirit my family instilled in me!

    • Rachel Simmons says:

      Hi Belinda, I certainly agree that it is important to teach kids the significance of their privilege! That said, we can’t disregard the mores of their social worlds, however lucky these kids may be. Teaching children only to be aware of their relationship to those less privileged does not help them deal with their own everyday struggles. And you’d be surprised how many very underprivileged kids actually DO worry about a nasty joke. The idea that the work I and many others do is the province of the wealthy is simply wrong, and I invite you to read my Odd Girl Out for evidence. Thanks for your comment!

    • Ellie says:

      Im suffering this problem and I know it hurts and I understand what your saying but theyre are girls out there with this problem that,arent in war zpnes or anything………and im telling you it hurts………one minut you think they are your best fruend another you are the butt of a joke…..honestly I want to move to a new school sometimes……..

      • Macie says:

        Omg that happens to me too…my best friend does mean things to me but then says nice things. I tried not being friends but that just made her upset and cry… Of course I felt guilty so I became friends back again with her. I don’t want to upset her but I want out!!! What should I do?

    • Amelia says:

      First, there is always someone “less privileged” that one could worry about. That doesn’t mean that people don’t have to deal with their own everyday lives. Secondly, this type of behavior does affect “less privileged” children in that nasty jokes are often used to reinforce social prejudices. The same psychology, which says “I want to say something unacceptable and remove your right to be offended by it” exists in those situations.

    • Jessica says:

      Belinda, if you think that the girls in war zones are too busy to worry about a stupid joke, they are likely too busy (or terrified) to make them as well. We are a privileged society are nasty to each other, perhaps out of some boredom?

  • Great post. Girls are not the only culprits in this mean joking drama. Boys do it just as much and try and hide behind “just kidding” as a way of diffusing blame and taking confrontation out of it.

    I will say on occasion, I’ve fallen victim to the same thing.

  • Another terrific post with insight that we all need to be reminded about. Often this concept is made light of, and it reminded of the scene in Talladaga Nights when one of the characters (a male) is speaking with his boss (a male) and is saying something negative but precedes it with the phrase ‘With all due respect’. The movie was great b/c while it was a comedic interplay it got across the subtle message that you can’t just add these little phrases to something negative to somehow cancel out their negativity or harshness.

    I know it’s not a cinema great but seeing this similar discourse play out in such an absurd way show really how preposterous it is to try and ‘cancel out’ rudeness.

    • Laura says:

      Thanks, Sara for the movie reference! I’m putting together a discussion for middle school girls and it’s a perfect visual tie-in!

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