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How to Deal with Negative Conversations

Are You Kidding?


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		  Are You Kidding?   

 Some conversers delight in poking fun at others. Some are gentle  with friendly ribbing. Others are downright cruel. And some don't  seem to know the difference.     

In the right context or relationship frame, even blistering humor  at another's expense can be OK. For example, a typical “roast” of  a celebrity performs the not-so-gentle ribbing with an array of presenters.  Because everyone understands that “it's all in good fun, and we don't  really mean it,” and because the roast may even be for a charitable  purpose, no harm is done. In fact, the more thoroughly the target person  is roasted, the more the presenters and audience love him. (Here I say  “him” because very few roasts are administered to women. They're a  “guy thing.”)     

Similarly, close friends may kid one another unmercifully because  both know it's not being done in a mean-spirited way. There may be  running gags about golf swings, love handles around the middle, and  the whole range of human foibles. Were an outsider to talk in the  same way, the target person would take offense.     

However, stepping over the line of good taste is easy to do, and  some conversers don't understand where the line is. For example,  if the target person is experiencing some deep loss or some feared  medical challenge, kidding is usually out of bounds. Many people  have an “Achilles heel” issue, such as a drinking problem, or the  time they forgot the ring at a wedding, something they want forgotten.  When a person is feeling vulnerable, rough kidding tends not to  lift the spirits, but to wound.     

The comedic genius, Groucho Marx, seemed not to know, or  to care about, the differences between being on stage in the comic  role and being off-stage in personal relationships. As if he could not  help himself, he shot his arrows of satire and sarcasm directly at his  wives, children, siblings, and friends. And even at high-ranking  dignitaries, such as in these examples:     

When performing with his brothers in the stage hit, “The Cocoanuts”:   

“On election eve he remarked to Chico: ‘I see we have the Honorable  Jimmy Walker.” (Mayor of New York City.) He addressed the  mayor, then under investigation. ‘What are you doing here? Why  aren't you out stuffing ballot boxes?'”     

“The night that President Coolidge attended The Cocoanuts, he fared  no better. Groucho interrupted the action to inquire, ‘Isn't it a little  past your bedtime, Cal?'”     

(Quotations from “Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry  Marx.” by Stefan Kanfer, 2000.)     

The late essayist and playwright Dorothy Parker was also well  known for skewering the great and near-great, and especially her writer  pals around the table at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, all this for  the mirth and merriment of her fellows and, when reported by the  gossip columnists, for thousands of readers. It seems clear that she  was unable to break out of this role for personal friends and lovers.  They also had to keep up their guard to defend against the zingers  that Dorothy could unleash at any time. (She has troubled  relationships, and this is one reason why.)     

“I was only kidding” lacks any real apologetic power if a  misspoken word “in fun” has deeply wounded its target. I have  observed husbands and wives making fun of one another in public  social settings, such as a husband talking about his wife's weight  problem, or she talking about his grungy personal habits. And I  have seen parents talking aloud about their offsprings' behavior,  such as the stupid things they have done, this for the ostensible  enjoyment of others but at the expense of the sons or daughters.     

If poking fun at others is your habit, take stock of what you  say and when and where you say it. The chance is that you may  be going too far, at least occasionally. And your words, once  uttered, cannot be taken back. Alternatively, if you find yourself  too often being the butt of such humor, you will act appropriately  by telling the other to lay off, that you don't like it or appreciate it.  Sure: Sometimes it's a good thing to be able to take a joke at your  expense. But when the joke on you is harsh or cruel, don't let  the perpetrator get off the hook by merely saying, “What's the  matter with you? Can't you take a joke?”    


Loren Ekroth ©2012, All rights reserved.

Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life.

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