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

By | August 15th, 2010 | 12 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.

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

  • 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……..

  • 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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