I was walking with a friend the other day and she turned to me and said “God, you’ve made a real mess of your face!” My skin has always been problematic.

I have suffered from acne since the age of 13 years and even in my fifties, it hasn’t gone away.

As I’d made a real effort to cover up my acne, her comment upset me. For a moment, I was too shocked to say anything. When I finally found my voice, I told her she had upset me.

“Oh, don’t be so sensitive,” she said, “I was only joking.”

All I could mumble was “You’ve really upset me,” and I walked away from her. If you’ve had to deal with mean jokes like this, you’ll understand exactly how I felt at that moment.

There’s an element of shock; did that person really say that to me? Then you wonder how to respond. Did they mean what they said? Did they purposely intend to upset you? Were they just ignorant? Should you say something? What should you say?

How to Deal with Mean Jokes

The problem is that while these thoughts are racing through your head, the moment is passing. Often someone has said something so mean and turned it into a joke you don’t know how to respond. Or you think of a pithy comeback days after the situation is over.

Of course, I can’t give you answers or witty comebacks to all the mean jokes in the world. What I can do is give you some general tips and examples that allow you to respond with confidence.

These comebacks to mean jokes are not nasty or passive-aggressive. They put the focus back onto the person who has given you a snide remark.

In essence, we are calling out these people to face up to what they have said and not use excuses such as

Oh, it was just a joke, get over yourself.

Now, before I start, make sure you have considered the following:

  • Did the person mean to hurt you or are they just being ignorant?
  • Just how bothered are you by their comment? Are you fuming or can you let it go?
  • Was it an offhand comment or directed at you personally?
  • Do you have triggers that make you overreact to certain comments?
  • How well do you know this person? Is this the first time you have met or are you friends?
  • Are they in a habit of telling mean jokes?
  • Do you feel confident enough to confront them?
  • Are you in a power dynamic that makes it difficult for you to say anything?

It can be easy to jump in and start calling everyone out for bad behaviour. The problem in doing this is that we should try and weigh up each situation on its merit. Does it warrant a confrontation?

If you have decided yes, this is important enough that you want to say something, then this is how you can go about calling it out.

Use the following as a step-by-step set of actions. So, start with ignoring, then ask them to repeat, once they have repeated the comment, get them to explain it to you, etc.

So, if you have ever wondered what you should say when confronted with mean jokes, here are 9 ways you can diffuse, disarm and dissuade people from telling them in the future.

9 Ways to Deal With Mean Jokes

  1. Ignore them/Don’t laugh

In any confrontation, you don’t want to jump in wielding the big guns straight away. The reason is that you may have misheard or misunderstood the joke.

Ignoring the person or not laughing at the mean joke can be an effective technique, especially if everyone else is laughing. Silence is a powerful tool because it puts the onus back on the perpetrator.

  1. “I beg your pardon?”

Asking someone to repeat what they have said is also an effective way of confronting their actions. You are not saying you agree or disagree with what they have said.

However, you want clarification before you move on. Making the person repeat a mean or offensive joke takes the power away from them. And sometimes the mere act of asking them to repeat it shuts them up.

  1. “Explain it to me?”

This is particularly effective when dealing with sexist, racist, or homophobic jokes. For example, I used to work for a manager who continually made sexist remarks about me in front of clients.

Things like She would make a really good stripper,” or “If you ask her nicely, she’ll show you her body.

By saying ‘explain that to me’ you put the perpetrator in the uncomfortable position of describing why he/she said that. Remember, you are not obligated to laugh at the joke to make this person feel better.

  1. What was their intent?

The famous comedian Ricky Gervais once said there is nothing you cannot joke about. It is all about intent. What is the intent behind the joke?

For example, this is a risque joke:

A Holocaust victim goes to heaven and meets with God. God asks the survivor about his experiences in the camps and the survivor says “You had to be there”.

While some people argue that you cannot joke about something as horrific as the holocaust, we are all ‘in’ on this joke because obviously none of us would want to be there. However, if your far-right friend told this joke, their intent would be different.

Find out their intent. Did they mean to be offensive?

  1. Kill them with sarcasm

In situations like these, sarcasm is not the lowest form of wit, it is a great way to deflect a situation back to the perpetrator.

For instance, if someone says “Gosh, did you get dressed in the dark?” Respond with “No, I’ve borrowed these clothes from your wardrobe.

Or, my favourite:

You kiss your mother with that mouth?”

  1. Act genuinely surprised

If you are in a group, quite often, the best way to deal with mean jokes is to act surprised. In your world, people don’t say stuff like that.

Examples include “Gosh, what an awful thing to say!” or “Wow, where did that come from?” or “What century are they living in?” or my favourite (taken from my dad) “Who rattled his/her cage?

This way, you draw attention to the person without confronting them directly. Hopefully, they will get the message and shut up. If not, move on to the next step.

  1. Call on others for support

Again, group settings provide a degree of support. Think about it, if this mean joke offended or affected you, it is quite likely to have the same effect on others. You can look around and ask the question

Why would anyone say that?” or “I find that totally inappropriate, don’t you?

Calling out bad behaviour is easier when you have a backup.

  1. Be direct

blunt people

Quite often, the reason people tell mean jokes and get away with it is that no one wants a confrontation. As a society, we are polite and it is easier to laugh off a mean comment than question it. However, being direct cuts through the BS.

If you feel confident, you can say,

Actually I find that really offensive” or “I’d rather you didn’t tell jokes like that” or “I really don’t like jokes that are racist/sexist/personal attacks”.

  1. “It’s not funny” and I’m not being too sensitive”

People excuse telling mean jokes with replies such as “Oh I was only joking, chill out” or “You are being too sensitive”. These are gaslighting techniques to diminish your feelings.

You know how that joke made you feel. Stand your ground. Saying something is ‘just a joke’ is not an excuse. A joke is funny and inclusive. What they have said is mean and nasty.

Final thoughts

It’s difficult confronting the teller of mean jokes, but a rule of thumb is to not go in all guns blazing. Start gently and allow them to explain. If they don’t respond as you would like, you have two choices; put up with them or stay away.


  1. huffpost.com
  2. wikihow.com
  3. psychologytoday.com

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Julie

    As always Janey. Thank you for your insight and for your sharing. Very, very helpful.

    1. Janey Davies, B.A. (Hons)

      Thank you Julie for your continued support and comments.

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