01/20/2012 04:23 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2012

Are You Really 'Just Kidding?'

"I was just kidding!"

How many times have you seen someone justify hurtful barbs with the disclaimer: "I was just kidding"?

But, were they just kidding? Or did they use their alleged "humor" as an opportunity to dish out a message they didn't have the courage or weren't comfortable enough to assert in a straightforward manner. Did they use their humor as a cover to side-step responsibility for the consequences of their insults?

Julie [not her real name], a professional woman with advanced degrees, recently reported an experience that she and her husband Mike found to be very disturbing. Mike, bright and knowledgeable, owns a wildly successful business, even though he lacks a formal education. They have many friends from every walk of life. Julie and Mike were recently at a party with couples they've known for years. Their neighbor Jim teased Mike about his mispronunciation of words in front of the others.

Julie was incensed because she knew that Mike can be very sensitive about his limited education and it felt to her that Jim was belittling her husband. She pulled Jim over and quietly confronted him. He dismissed the whole subject by saying, "Come on. You know I love Mike like a brother! Mike knew that I was just kidding. He shouldn't be so sensitive. I didn't mean anything by it."

We all know that teasing can be a good-natured way of having good times and showing affection among close friends and family. We may lovingly poke fun at an unusual or annoying habit or attribute of another person with no intention of causing hurt. The butt of the joke himself may even call attention to this trait in a self-deprecating manner and laugh along with us.

The confusing thing for all of us is that some people welcome CERTAIN types of teasing but become offended when we cross over a line. They may have their own quirky criteria about what feels okay and what feels abusive. Consequently, we would have no set way of knowing the difference!

We all know the locker room mentality of trading jabs. Whether it's the other's height, receding hairline or bulging waistline, some people seem to enjoy dishing out insults. A lot of this teasing is an attempt to show they are "with it," with the intention of being accepted as part of the group. Sometimes the jokester knowingly ridicules the target because he believes it will elevate his status with his buddies.

As each person tries to outdo the other by topping things off with the ultimate, the situation can spiral out of control into an ugly power play: a contest about who is more clever and in control. The language becomes increasingly more mean-spirited and can even become downright hostile. And if someone dares to protest, he may feel as if HE is being blamed for his feelings and harassed further for not being man enough to tolerate a joke. It's all in good fun? Right? Wrong!

Some people do not have the necessary filter and sensitivity to evaluate on their own when the teasing crosses the line. They may indiscriminately toss out jabs, believing that it is all in good fun and will enhance their camaraderie and standing with the others. They may not even have the social judgment to recognize the occasions when their "jokes" are not funny, and when the group at large may view the jokester as inappropriate and crass.

Are you one of those jokesters? Do you get yourself into situations where people let you know that they do not appreciate your comments? Do you find yourself saying "Just kidding" one time too many?

Then it may behoove you to work on developing an important social skill. It often takes unusual sensitivity to know the difference between teasing that is well received and remarks that will be construed as hostile. If you find yourself getting into trouble with people you care about, then you are better off stopping yourself before you say anything that has the potential of being misunderstood. Go out of your way to look for things that are positive so that you promote affection by speaking well.

You may even want to have a candid discussion with your friend to clarify how they feel. If you have any sense that you've offended them, a heartfelt apology and a commitment to be more considerate of their feelings in the future would be an important step in preserving the well being of the relationship.

If you are the recipient of unwelcome comments, it is important to find a way to tell the other person that their remarks are hurtful to you and stand in the way of your relationship. If the other person tries to deflect responsibility or implies that too much is being made of the remarks, it would be important to reiterate that it is not okay for the other person to poke fun. Standing up for yourself and calling attention to the negative undercurrents of other people's careless or deliberate jabs, is a powerful way for you to demonstrate your personal integrity.

For more by Linda Lipshutz, M.S., LCSW, click here.

For more on emotional intelligence, click here.

Linda Lipshutz, M.S., LCSW is a psychotherapist serving individuals, couples and families. She holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia and trained at the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy in Manhattan. She can be reached at her Palm Beach Gardens office at 561 630 2827, or online at