Responding to Offensive Humor

About a year ago I wrote an article about What People Find Offensive.  Recently a reader asked this question:

“What should people do when someone tells a joke that is offensive to the listener?  Do we have a right or responsibility to respond to racist jokes?  If so, what should or can we say without seeming prudish or too politically correct? Would love to have a variety of suggestions.”

There are several factors that should be considered when reacting to an offensive joke:

Why are you offended?  It’s important that you first understand yourself, before you make any attempt to “fix” someone else!  Be aware that if you are highly offended, you are probably in a disempowered state to make your point effectively.  I normally like to advocate that a person be “difficult to offend.”  If you’re coming from a place of good self-esteem, and if you are centered emotionally, it’s less likely that people will be able to push your buttons.  And that’s a good thing.  You’re likely to be more persuasive when your emotions are not clouding your thinking or your ability to express yourself effectively.

What is your relationship to the person who told the offensive joke?  Your best friend?  A total stranger.  It makes a difference.  When sharing information that may be perceived as confrontational, relationships are a major part of the equation when predicting a good result. 

Where are you?  If you stopped by a bar in a strange town and a drunk stranger is telling dis-tasteful jokes, hit the road and don’t let the saloon doors whack you on the way out!  On the other hand, if you’re at a party at a friend’s home and an acquaintance is the guilty party, the situation is obviously different.

What do you risk losing?  Your job?  Your friend?  Your life?  Will you be a social outcast?  Nothing to lose and everything to gain?  Remember that some friends may best be lost!

What is your personality?  How do you deal with giving constructive criticism?  How do you deal with confrontation?  Are you a whistle-blower-type personality?  This is a big factor which keeps many people quiet.

Don’t laugh.  Your first choice in reacting to an offensive joke should be “don’t laugh.”  This subtle clue is often enough feedback to a joke teller that a joke missed the target.  For most people, the pain of a joke falling flat is possibly reason enough not to repeat it.  But even if the joker is oblivious to the feedback, it’s important that you dis-honor the joke by giving it the appropriate silent treatment.

Speak to the offender.  My preference is to talk to the offender…in private.  Since there is a good possibility that the person telling the joke will be defensive, having a confrontation in front of others is a bad idea.  And I personally prefer a live conversation to a written note.

Use I-Language.  Explaining how the joke strikes you is better than making direct assertions about the character or judgment of the joker.  “That joke made me uncomfortable,” will have a greater chance of being heard than “That joke was in poor taste.”  In the first approach you shared your feelings.  In the second approach you made a judgment call.

Consider it a favor.  Often, people do not intend to be offensive.  They’ve just not given much thought to how their humor is perceived.  People need to realize that listeners come from a variety of situations and have extended family and social networks.  Some have interracial marriages, children with physical challenges, friends who are gay and lesbian, good neighbors who are members of many different religions, and connections to so many other elements of diversity that it would be impossible to list them all.  These aspects of diversity are not readily apparent to someone telling a joke to an apparently homogeneous-group of the “good old boys/girls.”  Invisible diversity could put a friend in an embarrassing situation.  You could be doing your friend a favor by re-framing how he views his network of friends.

Consider the timing.  You’re often better off giving a cooling-off period before giving the feedback.  It allows you to simmer down, if that’s a concern.  And you have much better control over the environment, the emotional state, and perhaps a chance for one of you to sober up before entering into a discussion.

Give feedback anonymously.  In some circumstances a possible avenue is to make a comment on a speaker feedback evaluation form, or to make a complaint to Human Resources.

Be challenged.  As best fits your personality, courage, and circumstances, I encourage you to speak up about inappropriate humor.  Your boldness and strength to do what is right will make your part of the world a little more civil.  And you’ll be doing all your friends a favor.