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“Sorry, Ladies” – The Dark Side of Workplace Humor

A friend told me that an outside male speaker had been invited to give a presentation to her business school cohort, where it just so happened she was one of only two women. The speaker began his talk by apologizing to the “ladies,” and then told an off-color joke. My friend was taken off guard, didn’t find the joke funny, and was stunned into silence. Bad Outside Speaker, no, no! If I’d been there, I’d have spanked him with a newspaper.

What’s the right response? It’s worth thinking about and preparing yourself because some guys start out telling these kinds of jokes (and by the way, it’s doubly annoying when they apologize for telling the jokes—as though they are gentlemen when it’s now quite obvious that they are not) as though it were all in fun and then start escalating the nastiness behind the jokes to where it’s not funny at all and has turned into sexual harassment. So, when guys start telling jokes at your expense, or at your gender’s expense, you have to fight back. How do you do that?

I’ll make some suggestions here, and you can think about what would feel comfortable for you and maybe try out a few if you get in that situation and see how it works. We all have different styles, so some behaviors feel more natural than others. And you do want your reaction to be consistent with your personality, so that your co-workers or fellow students aren’t shocked by your behavior.

First, keep it light. Demonstrate that you have a sense of humor—that joke just wasn’t funny. So, you don’t have to turn into a sourpuss, but you can spar back. Communicate with your reaction that he started it, he attacked you, and you’re not going to take that lying down. He is messing with the wrong girl. So, you might raise your hand up and ‘shoot’ him with your thumb and index finger and blow the smoke off your finger. With a smile of course. That will surely get a laugh from your classmates which sends a great message to Mr. Naughty Outside Speaker that you and your classmates are bonded, and HE is the outsider, not you. Or give the ‘I’m watching you’ sign with two fingers by pointing at your eyes and then pointing at him. Or you might crumple up a piece of paper and throw it at him. Try to hit him in the head. I wouldn’t throw anything that could really hurt him, but don’t hold back. It’s even funnier if you use his handout. You can continue the joke by asking to share your partner’s handout because “mine has come up missing.” Don’t be surprised at how fast your classmates move to back you up once you’ve pointed out that he’s out of line. Real gentlemen don’t like to see women picked on.

If physical humor doesn’t work for you or you couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, you can try out some verbal come-backs. Be careful that you don’t sound humorless or angry. Those reactions won’t win your classmates over and may unfortunately only reinforce the stereotype that women don’t have a sense of humor. Don’t let Mr. Naughty get the upper hand by rolling his eyes and saying, “I’m just kidding.” You can have a few stock phrases that you turn to, “Where’d you learn that one? 4th grade?” Or, “Don’t make me come up there!” Or, “What century are you from?” Or just glare at him and say, “Okay, that’s ONE,” and then smile to show that you’re not really mad, but he’s on a short leash. The point is to convey to him that he has made a mistake—you’re not going to hold it against him, but he better not do it again. Your classmates or colleagues will enjoy seeing you show some spunk and it takes the awkwardness out of the situation.

Of course, if the joke is funny, go ahead and laugh. I think lots of jokes that some people would consider politically incorrect are funny as heck. But mean jokes about women aren’t funny. They’re mean.

 

Copyright © 2012 Jennifer K. Crittenden
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