Sensitivity, April Fools, and Assertive Communication

Sensitivity, April Fools, and Assertive Communication

We at Pacifica love a good joke as much as anyone. We thought it might be fun to do a special “April Fools’ Day” blog post, pulling a good-natured prank on our readers/app users. But try as we might, we couldn’t figure out what would be appropriate but also topical, and wouldn’t upset people. So we didn’t.

There are lots of companies and websites that do special April Fools’ Day posts or activities and the majority of them are in good fun. But what about when people pull pranks or make jokes that aren’t cool? That are offensive or play on your emotions? We thought it might be worth discussing how to communicate to someone when they’ve offended you. It’s also timely given recent attention to sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace, where it can be particularly common that individuals blur the line between what is appropriate and what is offensive.

Whether it’s a joke or not, what should you do when you’ve been offended by something someone has said or done?

Initially, make a mental calculation of whether you want to speak up and tell the person how their behavior affected you. In the moment, you’ll assess:

  • how upsetting it was
  • whether you think they’ll listen and consider changing their behavior
  • whether you will interact with this person in the future
  • whether you’re in a place (mentally and emotionally) to respond in the way that you want to.

Once you’ve done this you can make a judgment call about whether it’s worth saying something. Some people are more comfortable not responding directly to conflict and would rather tolerate the behavior. It is your prerogative whether or not to speak up about something bothering you, but it’s worth remembering that very rarely will someone change their behavior without being told that what they are doing is bothering you.

Assertive communication is the best way to tell someone when they’ve offended you. Typically an assertive statement involves telling the person calmly and directly how their behavior makes you feel by making an “I” statement and then requesting that they do something else. The more specific you can be with both components of this statement, the better. Here’s an example: “When you tell jokes that reference women’s bodies, I feel disrespected and devalued. I don’t find them funny. Please don’t tell those kind of jokes around me.” If you get push-back from someone, insisting that “I was only kidding,” know that it’s OK to assert your feelings and reaffirm that regardless of their intent, that your feelings are valid and that you took offense. A response along the lines of “I realize that you may have intended it as a joke, but it was offensive and hurtful.”

If you are questioning whether something you’ve done or said was inappropriate, it’s possible that it offended someone. Most of us can think of times that we’ve said things that inadvertently offended someone, or when something didn’t come out quite right or the way we intended. But the fact that this can sometimes happen happens a lot doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do better in the future.

Some might argue that this is advocating for a sterile, politically-correct world when nothing fun ever happens. Well if that’s the case, I’m fine with that. Humor doesn’t need to come at someone else’s expense, and no one else gets to decide what offends you. Until you’ve been on the receiving end of an offensive joke, it can be hard to understand the hurt and icky feelings that come along with it.

It also bears noting that saying something offensive and then following it with a “just kidding” is not O.K. either. Trying to minimize the negative impact of your statements by claiming it was a joke doesn’t work. It doesn’t un-say what was said. A better approach would be a simple and direct apology. Own your mistake and sincerely communicate that you’ll do your best to not do that in the future.

While I hope these tips on assertive communication have been helpful, I don’t believe that it’s fair to put the onus on the recipient to say something. I think it’s a much better scenario all around if the offensive words aren’t spoken in the first place. So this April Fools’ Day, and every day that humor and jokes come into conversation, think about the impact your words may have on others, and choose to be respectful and considerate.