Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options to Excessive or Inappropriate Humor

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/humor.htm

Updated  01-24-2015

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An effective response occurs when you (a) get your primary needs met well enough, and (b) both people feel respected enough.

      This article offers useful responses to the behavior of someone who uses excessive or inappropriate humor. It assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it  

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • basic options for all responses

  • how to give effective feedback to someone

  • effective assertion and empathic listening skills.


      Do you know anyone who "makes a joke out of everything" and "is never serious"? That can be entertaining or aggravating, depending on your relationship and current needs. Some humor can be a personal and social asset unless it's overdone and/or inappropriate.

      How do respond to someone who's "always joking"? Laugh genuinely or politely? Joke back? Go along, and avoid serious topics? Try to get serious/ Give up? Criticize? Complain? Hint? Avoid confrontation? Get sarcastic? Numb out? Avoid the person? If your response "worked," I assume you wouldn't be reading this article. "Worked" means "get your current relationship needs met well enough."

      In my experience, someone who uses humor excessively is unconsciously guarding against (a) feeling painful emotions like sadness or despair), and/or (b) being disliked, rejected, and abandoned. Both are common symptoms of underlying psychological wounds.

       Some people use humor inappropriately - e.g. joking about things that are sobering, sad, or tragic; or using sexual or crude language in social conversations. Do you know anyone like this? How do you feel when they do this? Offended? Disrespected? Frustrated? angry? Scornful? Critical? Titillated? Forgiving? Tolerant? How do you usually respond? Do you need the other person to change?

Response Options

  • Identify what you need from your response to the 'humorist:" To vent? To inform? To cause change? To "help them?" Something else?

  • Remind yourself of your (and their) personal rights as dignified, worthy people.

  • Ask if the person is willing to hear some personal feedback. If not, honor that. if so, get good eye contact and choose responses like these...

To vent and inform

"(Name), when you make a joke out of everything, I feel __________."

"(Name), are you aware of how often you use humor?"

"(Name), when you joke about (something sad, serious, or tragic) I feel confused."

"You seem to need to avoid being serious (about ______). I feel like I'm only seeing one side of you (and that frustrates me)."

"Your constant use of humor (and sarcasm?) prevents us from having a serious conversation / irritates me / makes me want to tune you out / makes me impatient."

"I don't think _________ is funny."

To cause change

"(Name), I need you to stop joking all the time (about ____________).

"(Name), I need you to stop using crude language / sexual humor with me."

"(Name), when you use (crude / sexual) language like that, I lose respect for you."

"(Name), if you keep using (crude / sexual) language like that, I'm going to (take a specific action)."  If you use this, be prepared to act!

      If you use assertive responses like these, expect "resistances" like denial, sarcasm, explanations, excuses, indignation , criticism, stonewalling, changing the subject, whining, criticizing, aggression, etc..

      Use calm, respectful empathic listening to acknowledge the other person's behavior, and then re-assert your need/s. Repeat this listen > re-assert cycle as often as you need to. Avoid lose-lose arguing, explaining, debating, or finger-pointing (blaming)! 

To "help" the other person

       If you feel an urge to "rescue' or "fix" the humorist, beware! That's often a sign that a well-meaning false self is controlling you. If the other person doesn't want help, offering it will usually feel disrespectful. This can evoke passive or active "resistances" and stress your relationship.

Responses to Avoid

  • Confusing the person's behavior with who they are *their identity;

  • Repressing your feelings and needs. Neither of you benefit.

  • Name-calling, judging, labeling, or ridiculing the other person;

  • Hinting, vs. asserting. This implies "I'm 1-down";

  • Smiling and/or joking as you respond. This is apt to be a confusing double message which implies "I really don't mean what I'm saying, so ignore me."

  • Bringing up the past, or using "you always..." or "you never..." (generalizing)

  • Taking responsibility for the other person's needs, feelings, and behavior; and...

  • feeling guilty for asserting your perceptions and needs or "offending" the other person.

       Pause and reflect. What are you thinking and feeling now? How do these responses compare with your normal way of reaction to someone who jokes all the time or uses humor inappropriately? How do you think such a person would react to your responding respectfully like this? Would you satisfy your needs? Option - experiment with responses like these and see what happens! 


      This is one of a series of brief articles suggesting effective ways to respond to common social behaviors. This article offers options for responding effectively to someone who jokes "all the time" and/or uses humor inappropriately (in your opinion). The options are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity on your feelings, needs, and mutual rights, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness,  assertion, and empathic listening. 

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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