Just Kidding: When Humor Hurts

What percentage of the time when girls say they’re “just kidding,” do you think they’re really just kidding?

We’ve been asking girls that question for a long time. The numbers they come up with are often low. Really low. Why?

Many girls use the phrase “just kidding” (along with its cousin, “no offense” – as in, “No offense, but could you go away?”) to say something unkind (or painfully honest) without having to apologize for it. Using jokes to hurt someone is known as indirect aggression, defined as seemingly unintentional aggression.

Are girls more likely to use humor to hurt? We don’t know. But we do know that girls are under unique pressure from our culture to please others, especially their friends. These gender norms, which tell girls early on what it means to be a “normal girl,” tell girls to worry more about being liked than saying what they really think. As a result, many girls repress their strongest thoughts and feelings as they approach adolescence.

No Joke ZoneA mean joke let girls reconcile these competing pressures: it allows girls both to express their feelings and comply with the pressure they feel to be liked and avoid conflict.

At first glance, a mean joke might seem like a helpful adaptation that let girls have it both ways. But there are a host of reasons why indirect aggression is problematic.

The Silencing.

For example, I might ridicule a friend’s grade on a test, but if I follow it up with “just kidding,” Unwritten Rule #1 is that she has to laugh along with me. If she refuses and tries to call me out, Unwritten Rule #2 is that I get to say something like, “C’mon, I was just kidding – chill out!”

If she still refuses, Unwritten Rule #3 says I’m allowed to say she’s too sensitive, and maybe even lock her out of the group for a while after that.

What this means is that girl who was targeted feels silenced. Unwritten rule #4 is that she stays quiet and doesn’t speak up on her own behalf. Unwritten rule #5 is that no one else does, either.

The Emotional Disrespect.

The girls enforcing the joke are disrespecting the target’s emotions, which is a powerful form of disrespect. When you pressure someone not to feel hurt, you are basically saying, I don’t care if you feel hurt by this. I think it’s funny, so you have to think it’s funny, too. When we don’t challenge this behavior in girls, we let them think it’s okay to do it.

The Threat to Girls’ Integrity.

Using jokes as a way to hurt someone is also a threat to girls’ integrity. Too often these jokes contain kernels of truth, words that girls want to express but feel too nervous to say in a more serious tone. When girls lean too heavily on the crutch of a joke to make a point, they learn a troubling habit that allows them to avoid being direct. They don’t get to practice flexing the muscle of assertive communication. Painful as it can be, saying what you really think is also how girls stay true to themselves in the face of pressure to repress who they really are.

In this video, we introduce one of our favorite tools to help your family draw the line on offensive jokes. If any family members seem skeptical – especially grown-ups who think jokes are important – keep these big picture concepts in mind:

  • This isn’t about shutting down all jokes – just the ones that cross a line. You can still have a sense of humor and let someone know when they’ve gone too far.
  • Giving girls permission to say no and set a boundary with peers and adults is a precious skill for girls to develop – and one they get few chances to work on in a culture that expects them to please others and say “yes.” Try to look at the “No Joke Zone” tool as boundary-setting practice as much as anything.

When girls feel permission to say no, and see others honor their request, they begin to expect this level of respect from others. They enjoy a level of realness in their relationships, growing more confident in what they want from their friends and peers in the process.

Read more from Girls Leadership:

on Parenting     by Rachel Simmons

  1. […] from our students, and we wish it were not so prevalent on social media. That is an arena in which innocent intent often blooms into hurtful blowback. Our schools and communities are filled with hard-working, well-intentioned and dedicated public […]

    • Bee

      So my mom my whole life has used the “just joking”. Now I’m 38 year old adult with a brain and we have a much better relationship but I want to eliminate this because the jokes never feel like jokes and usually they are about something that really bothers her but hurts me. I’m wondering how do I use NJZ on a 74 year adult?

      • Dorothy Ponton, Digital Marketing Manager

        Try asking her if there are any topics that cross a line for her. Let her know you understand this is important for her and you’ll respect her boundaries about these topics. Then, let her know where your “no joke zone” is. It will probably take many reminders, because communicating indirectly through “just joking” can be a hard habit to break.

  2. […] from our students, and we wish it were not so prevalent on social media. That is an arena in which innocent intent often blooms into hurtful blowback. Our schools and communities are filled with hard-working, well-intentioned and dedicated public […]

  3. Celia

    I was googling “when jokes hurt” and came upon this post, which I find helpful. I am coming a bit from left field: I am a stepmother being bullied with “joking” by my teenaged stepdaughter. This gives me a start at understanding her and how to protect myself a bit. Tricky position indeed.
    Indirect aggression and outright hostility are hallmarks of this young woman’s behavior towards me and I have no voice, she is not mine to discipline. But the pain and frustration is very real. Thank you for giving an adult some tools to work with!

  4. Karyn

    I love this idea.
    My children have been squabbling so much lately. The NJZ is a great tool. Thanks!

  5. Jude

    Very, very, very bothered by the Flipper sound effects in the video. So we should not tease people, and we should respect people, and even though the speaker she said this no longer bothers her… I have an idea — Let’s make fun of her! That’ll show her. I think that laugh track negates every point she’s making and you’re trying to make.

    • Dorothy Ponton, Community Engagement Manager

      Hi Jude, sorry to hear you’re bothered by the Flipper sound effect, that wasn’t our intention. I’m confused what you mean by laugh track, though. I’m also confused about how we’re making fun of the speaker; could you tell me more?

      Navigating the difference between teasing fun and hurtful humor is what the post and video is all about. Rachel Simmons (who wrote the post and starred in the video) co-founded Girls Leadership to help girls have the tools to deal with things like this that most of us didn’t have growing up. Hope that helps.

  6. KLP

    You touched on the NJZ subject, but did not really offer any advice for how to establish this amongst friends. What are some solutions? Yeah, this can be done in a family, but that is not where the damage is being caused. It is at school and with friends. How is it implemented in these situations?

    • Dorothy Ponton, Community Engagement Manager

      Hi KLP, you’re so right, facing indirect aggression happens a lot amongst friends. Educators and coaches can use the same methods we’ve described for families.

      We focus on practicing these skills at home first, because for most girls it is a safer place to grow this muscle than trying it out at school and with friends. When it feels natural, the NJZ is implemented amongst friends the same way it is within families: explain that you have an area that is off limits for jokes, that you expect an apology, and move on.

      Girls who’ve taken our programs tell us that they teach these tools to their classmates (and depending on the grade level, sometimes to their teachers!). Letting people know that you have a sense of humor, and that it has boundaries, is a life-long skill to practice.

  7. Beth

    I love this idea- but what about the flip side? How do we help our girls (mine is 7) understand and appreciate the impact on their friends when our own daughters are being the mean ones? How do we spread the idea of the NJZ so when our daughter uses it with friends they respect it and don’t turn that into something else to be teased about?

    • Dorothy Ponton, Community Engagement Manager

      Hi Beth, thanks for asking this important question. You can take the same approach whether your daughter is being mean or is the target of hurtful jokes. It is likely that she experiences both sides of this already. If you think she isn’t having empathy for her friends, check out this Emotional Intelligence Workout.

      By spreading the idea of an NJZ at home first, she’ll get her own vocabulary about using it. It won’t necessarily stop all teasing, but will show her that having a sense of humor is not the same as accepting every hurtful joke.

      Rachel Simmons wrote a book which addressed bullying behavior in girls, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. There’s also a companion book full of stories from the girls themselves.

      Also, check out the work of Michele Borba and Rosalind Wiseman. They’re excellent authors on the subject of girls and this kind of behavior.


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