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How to deal with jokes hiding criticism!

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

I recently talked to a friend, an experienced marketing consultant, who has been working with a a big corporation for some months. She works with a young group of professionals in a very friendly and informal “common room” approach. There is also an older company executive on the team. This man recently interrupted an animated and somewhat heated discussion she was having with an intern to bring them “two mugs of coffee for peacemaking” as he put it. He also jokingly suggested to my friend that she could choose any city she wanted, to be sent to a course on giving feedback. Unfazed, my friend answered “New York”.

While it might have arisen from good intentions, the episode mainly caused confusion. My friend felt embarrassed and angry and in the end could not decide whether it was meant as purely a joke, or whether she needed to tweak her communication strategy in the office. The intern, who had been enjoying the discussion, felt guilty about the aftermath.  

Joking and teasing play an important role in human interaction and communication, and definitely have a place in the office and in teams. Jokes and humor can defuse tense situations, and teasing can smooth over small misunderstandings and annoyances. However, using joking to give important feedback can leave people feeling confused and resentful.

When we receive this type of comments, we’re left to wonder whether they were meant as a true joke or as veiled feedback/criticism. This lack of clarity leaves us powerless to try to enact changes.

I talk about better ways to give feedback in other posts. Here, we’ll focus on what to do if YOU are the target of such jokes.


Here are three things we can do when confronted with these type of “jokes”.

Stop and ask.

Tackle it at the source. Stop your discussion and ask immediately if the person is being serious. There’s no need to become angry or aggressive, you can address the other person in a friendly manner and show real concern.

For instance, my friend could have said: “Wait, are you seriously implying that my way of giving feedback needs to be improved? Or are you just joking? If you’re not joking let’s talk about this.” She could have turned to the young intern and asked with true concern if he perceived a problem with her communication style.

Follow up privately.

If you did not manage to address the issue right away, or though it was better not to (e.g. in a meeting), make sure that you go talk to the person issuing the joke in private, as soon as possible after the event.

You can say “Hey John, your comment ___________ made me wonder if you were being serious or not. If you truly think there’s an area of opportunity there I’d love to talk about it.” Be ready to receive some feedback/criticism in this case, and open to listening.

If the person, however, backtracks, and says s/he was only joking, you can still make a clear request: “Oh, thanks for clarifying that. You know I’m open to feedback, so if in the future you do have some, I would appreciate it if we could talk about it in private”.  Hopefully this will prevent recurrent episodes.

Talk to third parties.

If the issuer of the joke backtracks, but you are still worried that there might be some useful feedback veiled in his/her jokes, you can ask other people. Go talk to one or two of your colleagues privately and say “Say Jane, the other day John made a joke about ___________. He told me he was joking but it prompted me to wonder if its an area of improvement for me. What do you think?”

Hiding important feedback in veiled jokes or teasing is not conducive to a healthy working environment. Unfortunately there are some people out there that consciously or unconsciously prefer this approach to a direct confrontation. Dealing with these jokes in a proactive and open manner can help prevent them from happening to you in the future. It also helps to position you as a professional who seeks feedback and is sensitive to what is said in the office.

Have you ever received criticism through jokes? How did you deal with it? Let us know in the comments!



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