Humor can be toxic

‘Many a truth is said in jest.’ But where does ‘joking’ end, and emotional abuse begin? One of the most common complaints I hear from one family member about another is that, ‘He pretends that he’s joking, but I know he’s not.’

Years ago, I knew a man who was constantly ‘joking’ with his family. He’d make fun of his daughter’s hair, his wife’s work habits or his son’s performance in school. They would constantly tell him that his remarks were neither constructive nor helpful. When I confronted him about it, he said to me, ‘Is there anything wrong with constructive criticism?’ I told him no, but that he had to be careful that he was constructive about it. Obviously, he was well aware that his ‘jokes’ were much more than that.

He went on to say, ‘I think my family is too thin-skinned. There’s nothing wrong with a little humor.’ Humor, I replied, is contextual. There’s no point to a joke if the other person isn’t laughing. If they don’t think your humor is funny, then you stop and share it later with someone who does.

He had no reply. And I know for a fact that he continued to ‘joke’ with his family in a way that resulted in their long-term resentment, hurt and bitterness.

Of course, some people ARE too thin-skinned. They’re resentful about the slightest thing, and they hate being criticized, even in a constructive way. You can’t even gently tease them to get a point across. But there are situations where just the opposite is true. Humor is used as a way to sneak-in criticism and condemnation—with the ‘humorist’ not having to take responsibility for what he’s doing. I call this a ‘stealth humor’ attack. Instead of saying, ‘Here’s why I think you’re wrong,’ the attacker gets to make fun of you for free.

Stealth humor is deliberate, dishonest and cowardly. It’s better to ‘own’ your criticism than to hide behind the lame excuse that ‘I was only joking.’ Psychological abusers employ stealth humor because they know their criticisms aren’t valid and won’t stand up to the light of day. And valid or not, it’s beside the point anyway. The subtle abuser isn’t trying to help anybody. He’s not saying, ‘I believe in you. You can do better! Can I please make a suggestion?’ His veiled disapproval is meant to put you down or make you feel bad so that he can feel better about himself. Stealth humor is perfect for anyone who is too spineless to criticize openly and stand behind his opinions.

Stealth humor isn’t always deliberate, and doesn’t always come from hurtful intentions. Sometimes the ‘humorist’ is afraid to make his or her point openly, or just hasn’t sufficiently thought it out. They try to ‘lighten the mood’ while still trying to get their point across. It isn’t fair to label them as subtle abusers, but what they’re doing is still wrong. It confuses the situation to introduce humor when you’re really trying to make a serious point. And the point is lost anyway in the needless hurt that’s caused.

Some who engage in stealth humor don’t really recognize what they’re doing. They absorb it over the years from parents or others, and it becomes so second nature that it seems natural—to them. I once knew a woman who, while smiling and laughing, would snidely convey her disapproval and contrary opinions. She was not very funny (although she thought she was). I could never quite figure out why she did this until I spent time with both her and her mother, who did the very same thing to her. Bingo! It all became clear.

‘Many a truth is said in jest’ should not be taken literally, because the ‘truth’ is not always true. Criticism isn’t always reasonable—and truth may not always be the motive. Subtle abusers, just like physical abusers, are trying to gain a sense of personal power and control. Rational people attain their sense of worth by pursuing a career, raising children, or whatever else improves their life. Abusive types, subtle or otherwise, prefer to tear others down as a way to build themselves up.

In fact, none of this really has anything to do with humor. Teasing and joking definitely have their place. Some of the most effective people in the world have used wit and intelligence to blend the relaxing posture of laughter with the serious matters at hand. It’s most definitely an art as well as a skill, and my admiration goes to anyone who can pull it off. I have watched in horror the development of a society in which people have become so thin-skinned and self-important that they cannot tolerate the slightest joke about anything or anyone. Humor, like any powerful force, can be used constructively, or can be downright toxic.