Ways To Handle Ambiguous Rude Little Jokes And Comments

You're hanging out with some friends or co-workers. Someone makes what seems like a slightly rude, disrespectful comment to you, such as:

They didn't blatantly, excessively insult you. Their comment was in a gray area. Your gut tells you it was a bit rude, but you can't be sure...

Anyone would have some self-doubt in this situation, but you can have even more if you're socially inexperienced, or you've been picked on a lot in the past. You can wonder if you're being overly sensitive and misreading things. Not only do less-socially savvy or accepted people have trouble deciphering ambiguous rude comments, but they often have more motivation to figure out how to deal with them. They may simply get more of these insults than everyone else and would love to know how to tackle them.

What exactly this article will cover

I'm going to stick to hard-to-read jerkish comments made in everyday social situations, like having lunch with your co-workers, or chatting with a group of new people at a party. I'm also going to assume the person making the comment is roughly the same status as you. Obviously the playbook is different if the owner of the company you work for says something troublesome.

I'm also only going to cover fairly diplomatic or straightforward ways to respond. So I won't go over options like:

Shutting someone down with a witty comeback can work with certain types of people, but it's its own skillset. The other responses may fit if someone's gone way over the line or you're in a context that values toughness, but a gentler approach fits most situations.

Do what you can to deal with vaguely rude comments, but have realistic expectations for how much satisfying closure you'll get

It stings when someone makes a comment that you're 90% sure was meant to insult you. No one likes being disrespected or thought less of. You can try to minimize your feelings and tell yourself it wasn't a big deal, but deep down you know if something bothers you. When someone makes a douchey comment we want to get back at them. We want to have the perfect clever retort that puts them in their place and ensures they'll never do it again. Unfortunately, you're not always going to get that satisfaction. Sometimes a jerk will get away with it. Maybe...

Not only can jerks get away with it, but their comment may leave you feeling ashamed, angry, powerless, disappointed, or resentful, and there's no magic trick you can use to make yourself not have those emotions. You just have to let yourself experience them until they naturally pass.

Realize it's just tricky to know how to respond to any one comment

There are a range of possible responses to a subtle snide remark. I wish there were simple formulas of "If they say X, respond with Y". In reality these situations are uncertain and you've just got to use your best judgment for how to respond. Your reply will depend on hard-to-discern factors like:

You won't always get it right. No one does. Dealing with passive-aggressive jabs is a well-known social challenge. There's a reason some nasty people like hiding behind unclear, plausibly deniable "jokes" and "observations".

Often you won't know the best way to act until way later, when you know more about the person's character. For example, an acquaintance says something a bit tactless the first time you meet them, and you let it go. One day you may look back and think, "They never said anything else that bothered me. I guess they just get nervous when meeting new people and blurt dumb things out." Or conversely, you might think, "Ignoring their early put downs was a mistake. They turned out to be one of the most catty people I know. I should have tried to shut that down right from the start."

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Ways to respond to mildly rude, ambiguous comments

With all that preamble out of the way, here's a mix of options to actually handle vaguely nasty comments.

General guidelines

As I said, there are a lot of factors in how you should respond, and you have to use your judgment and accept you won't always get it right. In general though, I think unless someone says something really egregious, you should start with milder, more-passive replies, then ramp up your response if they keep doing it. (Though that's not to say you should mechanically go through each option in order. Just start with a milder one, then jump to a stronger reply next time if you need to.)

It won't always be the correct move in hindsight, but lean toward giving people the benefit of the doubt. Not every mildly offensive comment is a secret power play by someone who's trying to undermine you. You don't want to overreact to every little thing.

Some of these responses involve hiding your true reaction and acting like you're less affected than you are. I realize not everyone's an amazing actor, and your true emotions may come through. Take that into consideration when choosing how to reply. If you're not good at concealing your feelings it may be simpler to be straightforward.

Do nothing / ignore them / pretend you didn't hear them

And I don't mean to make an exaggerated display of how little you notice them because they're soooo beneath you. Just don't react at all to what they said.

Give a quick, unemotional, non-committal reply

For example, barely grunt an acknowledgement that they said something. If they asked you a sort of rude question, answer it in a quick, distracted, unaffected way. Again, don't try to make a big show of how little you care.

If they give you a seemingly sarcastic compliment, unemotionally agree with it

For example, they sarcastically say, "Wow, nice T-shirt. Really understated design." Mutter "Oh, thanks", then change the subject. Don't give them the satisfaction of taking the bait.

Give them a quick, mild look of confusion and disapproval

Send a short, non-verbal signal that their comment wasn't taken well. Briefly make a subtle expression that says "That was a weird thing to say" or "What was that all about?" Direct it just at them, not anyone else.

If they weren't being rude on purpose, hopefully they'll get the message to adjust their behavior. If they were being jerks, you can let them know you're on to them, without calling them out too publically. That might be enough to get them to stop. However, it's possible this approach is too subtle for oblivious, accidental jerks to notice, and too mild to deter purposeful ones.

If there are other people in the conversation, send a disapproving look to them

Make a face to signal to everyone else, "That was a bit of an odd, inappropriate thing to say. Am I the only one who noticed it?" This is still subtle, but a bit harsher than directing the message just at the person making the comment. You're using some strategic, appropriate negative group feedback to try to get them to stop.

Matter of factly ask about the intent of their comments

Ask in a neutral, curious tone, not an irritated one. "You keep commenting on my shirt. Does something about it bother you?" If they were trying to insult you, but hiding behind subtle, snarky digs, this calls them out somewhat indirectly. It may be enough to get them to knock it off.

"Helpfully" inform them their comment came across as rude

Even if you're almost certain they're being an asshole, adopt a friendly, helpful tone, take them aside and say something like, "I know you don't mean anything by it, but your jokes come across as a bit mean-spirited." Frame it as if you're doing them a favor. It lets them save face.

Call out them out for being catty, in a joking, easygoing tone

You're being more direct now, but still keeping the delivery light and breezy. For example, "Haha, wow, that was a backhanded compliment!" or "Geez, what a catty comment" or "Whoa, did you mean for that to sound so douchey?." The joking tone also gives them some benefit of the doubt. Your delivery and messages communicates, "I'm assuming your comments are joking, but you aren't coming across in the best light."

Call them out in more straightforward, assertive tone

Don't get angry or aggressive, but do be firm. For example, "That came across as really rude", "Dude, that's not an appropriate thing to comment on", or "What's with the snide remarks you keep making about everyone? Cut it out."

Responding to defenses to being called out

As I said, you can't always expect a good reaction when you try to get someone to stop being a jerk. The kind of person who makes snarky comments in the first place isn't the type to get called out, then maturely own up to it. Here are how to deal with two common retorts:

"I was just joking"

The favorite shield of the passive-aggressive douche. Keep a calm, neutral tone and reply with something like, "Okay, that's fine, but I'm just pointing out your jokes don't come across as good-natured."

"Don't be so sensitive"

In other words, "I didn't do anything wrong. You're just overreacting." Brush off the attack on your sensitivity and respond with something such as, "I don't know. Maybe I am a bit sensitive. I'm just saying you may be coming across as more hostile than you intend to."