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Responding to Inappropriate Jokes through Dialogue

By Jason Combs

Suppose that you are talking with a group of your peers.  The conversation turns towards topics of health, fitness, and body image.  At one point, someone says, “I mean, I don’t go around vomiting, but I could lose a few pounds!”  When others in the group look awkward and concerned, the person responds, “I didn’t mean it that way.  I was just trying to be funny…:”

You’ve probably been in a situation like this, when someone makes an inappropriate joke at someone else’s - even a whole group’s - expense.  While the person is probably trying to make light of their own situation and connect with others through humor, they do so in a way that shows insensitivity to the real struggles through which others might be going, one that in the end could be hurtful to others.  

How do you respond?

Dialogue provides a lens for responding to others in situations like this one.  As the Dialogue Zone defines it, dialogue is

…a communicative process in which people with different perspectives seek understanding.  Participants in dialogue need not adopt each other’s views, nor must their interaction result in agreement.  Rather, mutual understanding is their primary goal.  (Dialogue Zone, 2023)

When you invite someone into dialogue, you encourage them to interact with you in a way that allows you and them to share your perspectives in a manner that is free of the expectation of agreement.  While either of you might change your views as the conversation unfolds, changing each other’s views is not the goal of the conversation.  Rather, you are simply trying to understand each other’s perspective.  Dialogue is accordingly a way of communicating with others that is especially appropriate in situations in which tension or conflict arises.  Rather than avoid the conflict, you and the other person make it alright to lean into what otherwise might divide you and explore your differences.  If you understand each other better at the end of the conversation, then you have had a successful dialogue.

There are many strategies that you can use to promote understanding in dialogue.  One that is especially helpful in moments such as this one, when someone has said something that might hurt or offend someone else, is a method called PALS.  In PALS, we try to stop the interaction and invite the other person to examine something that has been said, so you both can share your differing views (Kaplowitz, Griffin, & Seyka, 2019).  As in dialogue in general, the goal with PALS is not to shame the other person or foster feelings of guilt; the goal is to increase understanding.  PALS is an acronym.  It has four steps.

First, pause the conversation.  You can do this in a number of ways.  A simple statement indicating to the other person that you want to examine more closely something that they said is usually sufficient:  “Can we pause the conversation for a moment?  I want to go back to something that you said.”

Next, acknowledge what the other person said.  You might restate what the other person said:  “A moment ago, you said…”  You also might paraphrase or mirror what you observed:  “You told a joke about having an eating disorder.  I know that you are probably just making light of your own situation…”  You also can invite the person to share more about why they found the joke to be funny.  In doing so, practice genuine curiosity:  “I am wondering what you found funny about that” or “Can you tell me why you made that particular joke?”

Third, listen to the other person’s views.  Practice generous listening skills as you do:

  • Communicate interest and attentiveness
  • Turn off your internal voice and lean into what the other person is saying
  • Let go of assumptions
  • Embrace the ambiguity of the moment, even if it is awkward and uncomfortable
  • Seek to understand the humanity behind the other person’s words
  • Patiently summon your best self and your best words and actions.  (Kaplowitz et al., 2019)

Remember that your goal is understanding the other person, not shaming them or convincing them that they are wrong.  Treat the other person with dignity and respect.  Keep in mind that everyone comes from a particular set of experiences and circumstances that shape their way of seeing the world.  You can ask questions, if doing so helps you to understand the other person’s perspective.  However, don’t let your questions turn into a sort of interrogation or function as thinly veiled accusations or judgments.

Fourth, share your own views or story Now that you have listened patiently and compassionately to the other person, you offer your own perspective.  As you do, you probably want to acknowledge the seriousness of the topic:  “I didn’t find that funny because…” or “For me, that someone has an eating disorder is not something to joke about…”  You might share a counternarrative that provides a window into the gravity of the topic:  “I know someone who has an eating disorder, and their situation is very serious…”  You also can tell a story of your own:  “I once joked about having an eating disorder when talking with some friends and learned that someone in the group actually had an eating disorder…”  

Remember that your goal is to offer your view, not to criticize the other person.  In the end, their view might change as a result of what you’ve shared, but it might not.  Changing the other person is not the goal of dialogue.  Participants in dialogue share their views in a way that honors each other’s experience.  If this sharing creates change, then so be it.  If not, then at least they have met each other in a place of mutual respect, openness, and dignity.  

Even if you approach the other person in a spirit of dialogue, there is no guarantee that they will not feel defensive.  When they are feeling guilt or shame, people often focus on what their intention was:  “I didn’t mean it like that…”  Without trying to correct the other person, you can talk with them about the difference between intent and impact.  Sometimes we don’t have the intention of hurting anyone, but our words or actions do hurt others.  That we didn’t intend to hurt anyone does not make the hurt that people experienced any less real.  The impact of our behavior is still there.  If we want to treat others with dignity, respect, and compassion, then we want to acknowledge the hurt that they feel, regardless of what we intended.  If appropriate, we might apologize for what we said or did.  If the other person is willing, we might talk with them about the hurt that they experience.  Doing so might be healing and educative to everyone who is participating in the conversation.

With April being Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we might be especially sensitive to jokes about sexual assault.  Despite the seriousness of this topic, people often make it the focus of jokes.  Such jokes might come from an intention to make light of one’s own situation or to connect with others through humor.  However, they could be quite hurtful to others, especially people who have experienced sexual assault or know someone who has.  If you find yourself in a situation in which you feel a need to respond to such humor, consider using the PALS approach and approach the person through the lens of dialogue.


Dialogue Zone (2023).  Dialogue Zone.  Retrieved from

Kaplowitz, D. R., Griffin, S. R., & Seyka, S. (2019).  Race dialogues:  A facilitator's guide to tackling the elephant in the classroom.  New York:  Teachers College.

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