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:
- A joke that's a tad too cutting
- A matter of fact remark about one of your physical flaws
- A vague observation about you that could be interpreted in an unflattering way, like, "I could see you being a good lawyer"
- An everyday question, like "Why would you want to do that?", but said in a somewhat hostile tone
- A general negative opinion about a group which they know you're a part of - "Ugh, people who post lots of pictures of their kids on social media are so boring and desperate for attention"
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...
- What if they were trying to playfully tease you, but accidentally went too far?
- What if they made that comment on your appearance out of obliviousness, not malice?
- What if they meant that observation in a neutral or positive way?
- What if the seemingly hostile tone in their question was all in your head?
- What if they just forgot you're in the group they were bashing, and weren't trying to make an indirect dig at you?
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:
- Insulting them back, either directly or with your own "jokes"
- Using an angry, aggressive tone
- Calling them out in a scolding, shaming way (e.g., "Everyone here thinks you're being creepy and strange.")
- Threatening or physically intimidating them
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...
- ...they've never said something rude like that before, so you decide to give them the benefit of the doubt and not address it that time.
- ...you'll defend yourself, but they won't care.
- ...they'll swear up and down they were just kidding, with just the hint of a smirk, and you can't technically prove them wrong.
- ...they're not conscious of how passive-aggressive they can be, and will deny doing anything wrong.
- ...they're intimidating and you'd rather meekly take the insult than risk provoking them.
- ...you were too shy or caught off guard in the moment to respond like you should have.
- ...you're in a situation where confronting them would cause other problems, so you bite your tongue for the sake of harmony in the moment.
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:
- What they actually said - Is it an offhand comment you can ignore, or did they make a biting joke that everyone laughed at, and which demands some sort of reply?
- How sure you are they meant to hurt you vs. being clueless or having a poorly-tuned sense of humor
- How well you know the person
- How many times they've made comments like this in the past
- How receptive you'll think they'll be to various approaches (e.g., are they nice and mature, or defensive and childish?)
- How comfortable you are trying able to pull off different approaches (e.g., do you not feel confident about being assertive?)
- How much their comment bothered you (e.g., did it really get under your skin because it was about your biggest insecurity, and the person who made it reminds you of your 6th grade bully, or did it relate to something you don't care about, made by someone you're indifferent to?)
- Whether there are any power differences between you and them (E.g., Do they have five friends backing them up? Are they bigger than you? Or are you a larger guy confronting a small woman, and suspect you'll come across as scary if you're too direct?)
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."
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.
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."