Once upon a time, I was a new employee at a new job; as most people tend to be at some point in their lives. I hadn’t worked a full-time schedule in a corporate setting for over two years and I was trying really hard to adjust and figure out what the hell I was doing. I had just moved to California and felt completely displaced and insecure. Sort of the way a cat feels when they’re taken from their loving home and put into a new one. Basically, there was a lot of hiding in the bathroom.
After a few months of what I considered “relatively decent performing”, a woman from the HR team came over to congratulate me on a job well done. “You’re the new model assistant!” she said. “We aspire to find more people like you!” she said! After months of feeling out of place, I finally regained my confidence.
“Don’t tell her that we like her too much, then she won’t be afraid anymore and will stop doing everything we ask her to do and we all know I like to lead with fear!” responded my boss.
After a quiet pause from everyone, she followed her statement up with, “Just kidding!”
I furrowed my brow and watched her while she rolled her head back in laughter and everyone else looked down at their computer screens with wide eyes and red faces. It was at that moment I realized that it wasn’t, in fact, a joke and she DOES lead with fear. It was incredibly awkward and I immediately went back to feeling clumsy and disoriented.
As our work relationship grew, I continued to receive odd comments. There were jokes about my awkward personality, jokes about my lack of knowledge of the surrounding area and how it’s an inconvenience to her, jokes about me not attending company events and jokes about my sense of humor.
While these jokes were being made in front of everyone who sat with us, I was also simultaneously receiving feedback through email on a regular basis. “It’d be helpful if you learned the restaurants around here so you can help me when I need to meet someone for lunch” or “Please be better about managing my schedule for the week on Sundays” or “your writing style reflects poorly on me and the other people you support.” After a while, it was harder and harder to delineate between jokes, feedback and outright insults.
While it was specifically odd to deal with when it came to my boss, I realized how often people try to veil their insults as jokes. Whether it’s a friend jokingly saying, “I hate that you’re getting married first, just kidding!” or “That outfit looks like it was put together by a toddler… LOLOL JK.”
I think it’d be helpful if more people took a second to process the following questions before speaking.
How well do you know the person?
If very well, continue.
If not, do not proceed!
Are you annoyed or frustrated with them?
If yes, bite your tongue.
Scream it into your pillow.
Write it on a piece of paper and then eat that piece of paper.
Are you in a position of power, or their subordinate?
If either is a yes, then stop! What are you thinking? Stop!
How do they typically handle jokes at their expense?
If well, proceed with caution.
If not, they’re sensitive and you should say absolutely nothing and get out of there as soon as possible, in case it slips.
Do they make jokes at their own expense?
If yes, dip a toe in the water, but be careful.
Do you have a playful rapport?
Go for it.
Truth be told, even in the best cases, there are going to be days when people aren’t ready to laugh at themselves. Even though I'd like to pride myself on being able to dish it as much as I can take it, there are times when I just don’t feel like it… especially when it’s someone in a position of power of me. It makes you feel totally defenseless. It’s kind of hard to respond with a joke at your boss’ expense and not expect to get fired or at least a stern talking to.
There is always a time and a place for humor, but there ain't no time and no place for bullies. There is a difference between being funny and being a downright terrible monster. At the end of the day, it's good to remember that I am rubber and you are glue and what bounces off me sticks to you.