4 steps for confronting someone whose humor is offensive

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There are many different perspectives on what constitutes humor, from deadpan to slapstick to insult, there tends to be a lot of variability in how people express their humor. Where do you draw the line between “just joking” and offensive humor? That’s up for each person to decide, but if you have found someone’s jokes distasteful here are some tips how to confront someone whose humor you consider offensive.

Step One: Do A Self-Check In, How Are You Feeling?

As a therapist, I believe that emotions are key to our motivations and decision-making process. They don’t have to be the end-all-be-all, but feelings give us critical information as we move throughout our daily lives. When you find yourself confronted with someone’s offensive humor, it’s important to first check in with yourself and your emotional state when you choose to confront them.

First, be clear about why you find the humor so upsetting. Ask yourself, “What is it about this joke that struck me so hard?” This will help you express yourself more accurately and assertively. When you move to actually confront that person, ask yourself if you are feeling up to a continual conversation about the “why” behind your intervention, or are you only ready just to assert the boundary and move forward.

It takes a good amount of courage and emotional strength to confront someone, even if it’s about their humor. If you’re personally offended due to the humor targeting some part of your own personal identity or your own life choices, then you’re likely a bit emotionally charged. If you feel out of control in managing these feelings (e.g. you think it might turn physical) then it’s best to first take a time-out. If you feel like you can assert your point and advocate for yourself in a calm manner, then by all means take the leap to share your position.

Step Two: Take Stock of Your Immediate Environment

It’s not easy to challenge someone’s offensive humor, no matter the situation or environment. But, understanding your environment when you choose to confront them, could be helpful in managing the situation altogether.

Confronting someone often feels like an isolating experience. After all, it takes a lot of bravery to confront someone’s offensive humor. When you’re about to state your case, take a beat to consider your environment. Does it generally feel safe? Have those around all co-signed the joke or do they seem uncomfortable, too?

Confronting a comedian in a crowded nightclub may be more difficult than at a family gathering with an inappropriate relative. And while there is no hard-and-fast rule about environments in which you should, or shouldn’t, confront someone, taking stock of your environment might give you some helpful insight on what you might expect for a response. It’s another data point to consider as you decide what you want your confrontation to look like.

Step 3: Consider The Relationship

When you think of confrontation in any instance, first and foremost, it’s important to consider your relationship with the person you’ll be confronting. While there are similarly no well-established rules about who you should confront and when, it is important to consider your relationship with the person and the implications of your history and future together.

Close friends

If you’re interested in preserving the relationship at all, then considering how you approach a conversation with this person who made the offensive remarks is important. If it’s someone you’re close to, you might not want to shame them because you feel OK taking time to help them understand why their comments were offensive. This might change if it’s a continual problem and want to put them on notice that their behavior was problematic and want it to stop.

Strangers and acquaintances

Addressing complete strangers is a completely different situation, as you have no data as to how they might react. In those instances, it’s even more important to consider safety in your confrontation.

Step Four: Consider Your Safety

In any case where you intervene, it’s important to consider the aspect of safety. After all, you never know how someone might respond to your compliant. Hopefully, in most cases, you likely only have to be aware of your emotional capacity and safety in the moment. But sometimes there can be long-term implications of confronting someone, especially in our troll-filled digital age.

You may want to ask yourself, “will the person I’m confronting take this in stride or what will I do if they react poorly? Am I ready for that potential outcome?” Of course, you may not always have a well-conceived plan should things go awry (it’s also OK to be spontaneous in your reactions l), but it is worth considering your own — as well as the other person’s mental state — when you confront them.

Physical safety

Unfortunately, we must also consider physical safety when we confront someone. Some people can be defensive when confronted, and being challenged about the way we communicate can be a hard pill to swallow, especially in our current socio-political climate. If you choose to confront someone on their inappropriate jokes, take into account their current mental state (do they seem generally well balanced and calm? Are they sober?) as well as your history with them and the history of their behavior.

If a person has a history of explosive reactions when angry or challenged then it may be best to wait to confront them about their offensive humor, or to forego the challenge altogether. If they are known for their responsive demeanor then chances are your challenge will go fairly well. It’s widely accepted in the psychological community that past behavior is a relatively accurate predictor of future behavior. Take advantage of this principle. And if this person, or their history, is relatively unknown to you then it’s best to exercise caution.

Asserting yourself is never an easy task and it takes a lot of courage and effort to be vulnerable enough to challenge someone’s offensive jokes. Hopefully, these considerations help you feel more prepared the next time you’re faced with offensive humor.