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No Offense, But I Was Just Kidding: Dealing With Mean Jokes

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"When girls say 'just kidding,' what percentage of the time are they really joking?" It's one of my favorite questions to ask girls, and I rarely hear numbers in double digits.

That's because "just kidding," and its cousin, "no offense," are phrases girls (and guys, though less frequently) use to hurt each other without having to own up.

The phrases seem fairly innocuous, cute little jabs that aren't supposed to leave a mark. They allow you to say something mean and still appear to be a likable Good Girl. Adults often ask me why it's not enough to respond, "That's not funny!" Partly because there is a social script kids use in situations like this. If you fight back against a mean joke, you're likely to hear retorts like, "What's your problem? Can't you take a joke? I was just kidding! You're taking it the wrong way," and so on. The hurt girl is silenced. She has learned that if she doesn't go along with the joke, she'll lose membership in her group.

To be sure, not every instance of "just kidding" should raise our hackles. Teasing is often healthy and fun, not to mention an important part of interpersonal and individual development. But when it's abused, "just kidding" contains a disturbing logic: If I didn't mean it, it didn't happen.

To understand this more clearly, consider that every act of aggression can be divided into two parts: intent and impact. Intent first refers to what you meant when the aggression occurred; impact, to what actually happened. The meaning behind "just kidding" is: if I didn't intend to hurt you, the impact didn't occur. If I was just kidding, or I didn't mean it, I can't get in trouble. You can't be mad at me. You can't not be my friend. And so on.

This logic is dangerous for two reasons. First, true respect in relationship means respecting others' feelings. In other words, we can't tell someone else how she should feel. Only you get to say if you're hurt or not. Second, the logic allows kids to deny responsibility for rude behavior. "Just kidding" also compromises girls' integrity because it allows girls to project a "nice" image, even as they make disrespectful remarks.

If you're a girl with a friend who makes mean jokes, try this:

Ask her to respect your feelings. Tell the joker that just because she didn't mean it, doesn't mean it didn't happen. Sure, you understand she didn't mean it, but you need her to respect the fact that it hurt you. If she says, "you took it the wrong way," remind her that everyone takes jokes differently and people are sensitive about different things. Teach her the NJZ (see below).

Ask her what's really bothering her. Girls who use jokes to be nasty are often hiding other feelings they are struggling to express. Ask her if she's okay and if there is anything you need to talk about to clear the air.

If you're a parent or teacher and have a "just kidding" epidemic at home or in your classroom, try this:

Define the behavior as a form of aggression. It's not just a joke. Affirm that you find the behavior inappropriate and compare it to a type of aggression she already understands: overt insults, hitting, etc.

Create consequences. Explain that if you continue to hear "just kidding" used as a way to be mean, there will be a consequence--loss of a privilege for a period of time, for example.

Look in the Mirror. Do you use humor as a way to take swipes? The girls in your life are watching and listening. She will follow the right example if you set it.

Create a No-Joke Zone (NJZ) in your home or classroom. Establish the NJZ as a code that anyone, adults or kids, can use to draw the line. The NJZ creates a new script, and the protocol goes like this: When someone makes a joke that crosses the line and an NJZ is called, the other person must apologize - sincerely, not "sorrreeeee!" - and the subject must be changed.

As my Mom always said, "It's not what you say, it's how you say it." Using definition, positive alternatives and consequences for girls will help foster critical truth-telling skills and make them more trustworthy, honest young people to boot.