“Are you sure you aren’t having twins?”

“By the time you meet someone and get married, my daughter will be too old to be your flower girl!”

“Whoa, relax! Did you take your meds today?”

These comments were recently said to friends of mine, and then followed up with a casual, “Just kidding” or “I’m only joking,” as if those words somehow magically erase the comment’s insulting nature. Often the “it’s just a joke” defense is viewed as a free pass to say anything, even if the topic is something that the recipient is sensitive about, such as their appearance, job, marital status, or a health condition. Social media and texting have made it even easier for people to spout off mean-spirited, derogatory, or offensive comments, since they can easily “explain” their remarks with a “JK,” “LOL,” or winky-face emoji.

What adds insult to injury is when the recipient calls out the jokester and is reprimanded with comments like, “You’re so sensitive!”

This reaction can sometimes hurt more than the original insult, since the joker is now mocking and invalidating the person’s feelings, while insinuating that they don’t have a sense of humor.

I get it that some people use teasing as a way to show affection and bond with loved ones. And I completely agree that shared laughter is a fantastic way to connect. But, chances are, the recipient of a rude comment isn’t going to be laughing along with you. And she’s not going to feel loved and supported, or closer to you.

Another potential downside is that when our kids hear their parents and other adults say “just kidding” to defend mean comments, they think that’s an acceptable excuse for saying whatever they want to siblings, friends, and classmates. It can contribute to a general culture of meanness and lead to potential bullying down the road.

If you’ve been on the receiving end of a hurtful or offensive comment, followed by “just kidding,” here are some tips on how to respond:

  • Let the person know how you feel – the sooner, the better. Say something like, “I know you meant it as a joke, but it hurt my feelings.” If you can say it in front of others, it may be even more effective. The person may be somewhat embarrassed and think twice before making a similar comment in the future.
  • If the person responds with, “Get a sense of humor!” say something like, “I have a great sense of humor, but I don’t find jokes that mock someone’s appearance [or whatever] to be very funny. I actually think it’s offensive.”
  • If the joker is a relative or close friend, be aware that he or she may truly have thought you would find it funny. Explain to them that you don’t mind a little innocent teasing, but the comment went too far and was hurtful.
  • Try to avoid stooping to their level by returning the insults. Doing so can lead to an endless cycle of mean, negative behavior. Take the high road, let them know how you feel, and let it go.

If you find that your jokes sometimes lead to hurt feelings, here are some tips to avoid future problems:

  • Think before you speak. Before you open your mouth, ask yourself these questions: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? If the answer is no, keep your comment to yourself.
  • Don’t judge or argue about the validity of the other person’s reaction. Everyone is entitled to their feelings.
  • Don’t defend yourself or insist that others love your sense of humor.
  • Apologize. Make it a heart-felt, authentic apology. Don’t say, “I’m sorry if I offended you.” Take responsibility and acknowledge the hurt feelings. Explain that you’re truly sorry and that you’ll be more sensitive in the future.
  • Do some soul-searching and think about possible reasons why you’re teasing this person. Do you have some ill will, jealousy, or resentment towards him or her? Is someone picking on you with mean-spirited jokes, and you’re passing it along? Are you struggling with self-esteem issues?

If you’re a witness to, but not the recipient of, a mean-spirited comment, here are some tips to support the victim and promote kindness:

  • Don’t laugh along. If people don’t have an audience for their jokes, they’re less likely to let the insults fly.
  • Call out the person. Say something along the lines of, “Hey, that’s not funny” or “That’s really rude.”
  • If you don’t feel comfortable calling out the mean comment, approach the victim after and let her know that person was wrong to say that. Empathy from a supportive, caring friend can take away a lot of the sting left by a hurtful comment.

Christine Luff

Christine Luff is a mom of two kids, wife, writer and blogger, running coach, and avid runner. Christine is obsessed with coffee, and is founder of the website Run For Good, where she writes about running and other good stuff.