Ways To Figure Out If Someone's Jokes Are Mean Or Good-Natured

People affectionately poke fun at each other all the time. Jerks can also hide their mean-spirited intentions behind the excuse of "I'm just joking around". And then there are types who don't intend to seem cruel, but they're accidentally going too far.

Some people feel like they're not good at telling the difference between friendly, playful teasing and passive-aggressive "joking" insults. It's more common among those who were picked on growing up, or who aren't the best at figuring out social cues. They can worry they're misreading the situation or being too sensitive.

There's no foolproof way to know what every joke really means, but I'll share some questions you can ask to try to get a clearer sense of what's going on. Any one question won't give you a ton to go on, but if you combine the answers to a few of them you'll probably get a better picture of where the person was coming from.

You might be able to figure out their motivation in the moment, and reply appropriately. Or you might not piece it all together until after, when you've had more time to think. It's aggravating to only figure out a good response hours later, but at least you'll have a better sense of how to handle that person if they tease you again.

What was your immediate gut reaction to the joke or comment?

Your initial emotional response isn't always reliable and can be led astray by old baggage, as I'll go into below, but it can provide some useful direction. It can mean something if you're hanging out with a group and have been teased five times already that day, and the jokes all made you feel happy and included, then the sixth one makes you feel insulted, confused, or squicked out, even if it was similar to the others on the surface. Your unconscious may have picked up on something you otherwise wouldn't have noticed.

Is the person's tone and facial expression friendly and joking?

Do they have an affectionate smile and a playful glint in their eyes? Is their tone of voice obviously teasing, but with an undercurrent of warmth and friendliness? Or does their face communicate something else, like gleeful cruelty, disdain, a sense of superiority, or being put off or annoyed by you? Is their tone mean or cutting?

Again, you won't always get a solid answer from someone's nonverbal communication. Like some people mean well, but have a really dry, deadpan delivery. Others can say the most awful, cutting things in a jovial tone. But often a person's voice and facial expression will give you helpful clues.

Is the comment about a minor quirk of yours, or an area most people would feel insecure about?

For example, are they poking fun at the fact that you can't use chopsticks, or are they commenting on your crooked teeth? Are they ribbing you about being bad at a video game, or wondering out loud about how you're probably a virgin?

Ribbing someone about a small foible or mistake is more likely to be friendly. There's a higher chance someone is in jerk territory if they're picking on you about physical features you can't change and are likely to be insecure about, or trying to call attention to something that may embarrass you. I realize some friends tease each other about their biggest insecurities and life tragedies, and it's a sign of how extra-close they are. I'm just saying if someone jokes about one of your weak spots, be more skeptical of their intentions.

Is the comment worded in a humorous, exaggerated way, or is it blunt and matter of fact?

For example, a friend is teasing you for not wanting to go to the club. Is she saying something like, "You never want to go clubbing with us, but I know you still like dancing. I bet you have all-night dance parties with your dogs to get your fix"? Or does she just say, "Wow, you're so boring." Whether it made you laugh or not, the first comment was all about sharing a weird, humorous premise. Even if the second comment is delivered in a joking style, the message isn't funny. You'd have to wonder why she went out of her way to say it.

Is the content of the comment straight-out mean?

Like you tell a quick story and an acquaintance replies, "When are you going to figure out none of us wants you around?" Even with the most "I'm kidding!" delivery, that's just a mean thing to say.

How well do you know the person?

As I said, good friends are sometimes comfortable with saying really dark, soul-destroying things to each other, because they know no one means anything bad by it. But it takes time to get the relationship to that place. If you've just met someone and they're already poking at your deepest flaws, they're likelier to be a jerk, or a bit socially oblivious at the least.

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Are they directing most of their comments at you, or spreading them around?

Of course, you can only ask yourself this if they've teased you several times already. If they're mainly poking fun at you it could be a sign they dislike you, don't think much of you, and want to use you as an easy target. However, it's also possible they just feel comfortable joking with you, because you're closer friends or they think you can take it. Singling you out may also be a sign of affection.

Do they joke about you in a different way than when they poke fun at someone else?

When they tease their other friends or colleagues are their jokes more mild and surface level, but with you they're more cutting? That's a likely sign they dislike you. But even here you can never be sure. Maybe they just think you're uniquely equipped to handle some harsher, though well-intentioned, remarks.

Are they joking about a topic you're personally sensitive about due to past bullying or criticism?

If you've been picked on or criticized about a particular area as a kid, then when someone teases you about it as an adult it can create an outsized reaction. You may think they're being a jerk, but it's really that they hit a sore spot and pulled you into the past. For example, maybe you have no problem rolling with all kinds of affectionate insults, but if someone comments on your hair you feel unusually attacked and defensive. That's because when you were ten your classmates saw you had dandruff one day, then spent the rest of the school year calling you greasy and poor. If someone jokes about your hair, and you're aware you're sensitive about it, you can know to take a moment to ask yourself, "Was that remark really that mean? Where's my reaction to it actually coming from?"

Does the person remind you of someone who used to pick on you?

Like you have no problem being teased by artsy, alternative types, but bristle if the joker seems like one of the jocks or mean girls who made your life miserable in middle school. Sometimes it's the person's overall look that sets you off. At other times there will be something about their delivery that reminds you of how a bully used to speak to you. Once more, if you're aware certain types of people hit a sore spot from your past, you can factor that into your analysis when you're trying to figure out someone's intent. If you're quicker to conclude certain types of people are mocking you, you can take a second to double check that assumption. Maybe they superficially seem like a jock, or your critical parents, or your insensitive coach, but weren't actually trying to make you feel bad about yourself.


Once you have a sense of what the person's intent was, the second half of this article has some options for how to respond:

Ways To Handle Ambiguous Rude Little Jokes And Comments