How to respond to people who ascribe negative motives to a comment?
May 15, 2020 7:06 AM   Subscribe

I always struggle with proper response to belligerent person who's own chronic anger or paranoia leads them to ascribe a negative motivation to a neutral comment. Example might be I make a joke about a specific friend who's overly devoted to a political figure, belligerent person responds "so you think all [political figure]'s supporters are that crazy?"
posted by Jon44 to Human Relations (27 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
When I have had people like that in my life, I eventually realized that they were essentially looking for someone to play the other role in a script they had going in their head -- that they were picking a fight so they could play out their own drama. It took a while to learn to not react to an aggressive comment (usually felt a bit shocking and then I would feel like I had to "take their bait" and then I was playing a role in their play.)

What worked for me was a light, slightly quizzical neutral response ... "oh, I don't know about that" or "hmm, interesting" or just a wondering expression (I kept thinking of Mr Spock from Star Trek TOS.) Nothing that accepted or negated their premise -- in other words, nothing like "Oh I didn't say that" (because it can lead to "well what DID you mean?!" I'd shrug it off and change topics ASAP.

Eventually if someone is looking to pick a fight, they will keep on going -- in which case, the sooner you can get out of the situation, the better. Otherwise, it's neutral "gray rock" (no emotional response to their aggression) all the way. I had to practice to not react to that sting of someone speaking aggressively to me -- but eventually I got better at it.
posted by profreader at 7:17 AM on May 15, 2020 [15 favorites]

Internet or real life? On the internet, officially, the right answer is "flag it and move on". But you can't always rely on moderators to remove that particular style of comment, not even here where the moderation is better than 90% of the rest of the internet. And obviously that doesn't work in real life.

I think profreader's advice is the best. If someone is engaging you in bad faith, there's no "right" response that will prevent them from continuing to do so. The only options are to divert or disengage.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:31 AM on May 15, 2020 [3 favorites]

If it's someone in real life, "Is everything OK? It seems to me like something outside this conversation is bothering you."

Strangers online? The best thing to do is just ignore, but I struggle to do that myself.
posted by muddgirl at 7:56 AM on May 15, 2020 [4 favorites]

Is it possible your comments aren’t coming across as neutral? The example you gave did not sound neutral to me but rather sounded like you were criticizing another friend’s belief in the form of a joke that might seem mean-spirited. You also used the words belligerent, paranoia, and anger in describing them, which are pretty strong, critical words. Is it possible they are sensitive because they don’t think these comments are neutral and they feel like they are being gaslit?

I’d say, when you spend time with this person, to avoid making fun of or being negative about other people. Don’t make jokes at others’ expense. And then if they do react negatively, just try to keep steady in your response and quickly move on to a different topic.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:59 AM on May 15, 2020 [27 favorites]

"so you think all [political figure]'s supporters are that crazy?"

"oh, ha ha [nervous laughter], no not at all, I was making a joke about my friend specifically" and then change the topic if you don't want to engage further and maybe stop considering making "neutral jokes" around them if you know what their reaction is going to be. This just seems real simple to me.

I know someone who really hates cynicism and sarcasm - for whatever reason - and gets really defensive and argumentative when they notice people making negative/sarcastic remarks about people or things. But I like this person. So...I simply make sure to ramp down the sarcasm around them to avoid upsetting them? I'm not going to try and totally own them with magic words and logic and reason that convince them they are behaving irrationally or try to defend my humor of talking sarcastic shit about things with "chill out it's just a joke". I just...don't do the thing if I know that this person is going to react negatively to it. And if I didn't like them or respect them as a person, I'd probably just continue making sarcastic jokes and letting them get huffy over it because it would be funny and enjoyable to me to upset them.
posted by windbox at 8:37 AM on May 15, 2020 [6 favorites]

If you have a lot of people in your life who do this then look at yourself, not them. I know that I overreact to comments that my husband makes, but no one else seems to. So it’s my problem, not his. If he had other people having the same reaction then I would look at him as having the problem.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:00 AM on May 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

Don't make jokes about your friends' devotion to political figures!

It's a basic axiom of social etiquette that people are touchy about politics, and IMO it's socially unacceptable for you to tell them to lighten up and learn to take a joke about theirs. Don't make jokes about people's religion either, or the amount of money they have. Thanksgiving table rules apply everywhere and all the time when you're in diverse company.
posted by MiraK at 9:17 AM on May 15, 2020 [11 favorites]

“Wow Andy sure loves Trump”

“So you think all Trump supporters are as crazy as Andy?”

(Calm, factual voice, think of Jim from “The Office” ) “um. Bill? That’s... not what I said at all. What I said was, Andy loves Trump.”

“Yeah but you think Andy is crazy so you must mean-“

“I also didn’t say Andy is crazy in this instance. Bill, can I ask a favour? .... Please don’t try to interpret or extrapolate things you assume that I “must mean”... the interpretations are often not accurate, and I don’t like having words put in my mouth. What I mean .... is what I said.”

Speak calmly and slowly, make eye contact but not super intense eye contact, and say his name a couple times to make sure he knows it’s serious. But don’t intensify the emotional tone of the exchange more than like 10%. Keep it calm and clear and kinda gentle.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 10:03 AM on May 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm trying to think of a way to make a joke about a friend's devotion to a political figure that isn't in itself belligerent and offensive, and I'm coming up blank. It might be helpful if you gave us a specific example of one of the instances you're talking about. The other person coming up with the phrase "are that crazy" makes me wonder if the "crazy" attribution came from your joke in some way. Your joke may seem more neutral to you than it does to other people.
posted by FencingGal at 10:13 AM on May 15, 2020 [7 favorites]

I'd also reread the replies you got last time you asked what is basically the same question.
posted by FencingGal at 10:17 AM on May 15, 2020 [30 favorites]

How to respond to people who ascribe negative motives to a comment? Apologize.
posted by at at 10:40 AM on May 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

I think you can ask, in a neutral and curious tone, "How did you get that, from what I said?"

And, here's the hard part, listen to the answer without rushing to defend yourself or (god forbid) explain exactly why your joke was funny.

I think you must have a blind spot about yourself, because the two comments you mentioned don't seem to be logically related.
posted by cranberrymonger at 11:46 AM on May 15, 2020

I think maybe your neutral needs to be recalibrated. Making a joke about someone's 'devotion' (not a neutral word in itself) to political figures is not a neutral thing to do. It doesn't sound like you are commenting on the weather and getting push back on that.
posted by thereader at 12:33 PM on May 15, 2020 [4 favorites]

It’s very possible your jokes don’t come across as neutral. Teasing almost never does, unless your relationship with the teasee is secure and mutually jokey.

People prefer different communication styles, is the thing. What I think of as neutral may be received as cold or mean. What I think of as funny may be received as critical. There’s a risk you assume in joking or teasing, and it’s a pretty big risk, that you may hurt or anger someone. It’s your responsibility to back off if that’s how you’re regularly being received.

I believe you that there are people who ascribe negative motives where there weren’t any—I can be one of them, especially in romantic relationships—and in that case, you can lightly clarify what you meant, then disengage. Don’t get into a tennis match or tell them how to feel.

Notice the solution (backing off) is the same in either case.
posted by kapers at 2:43 PM on May 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

ok so, from this and the above-linked last question, you like to make cute implication-jokes that are fun for you because they feel subtle and just a little daring. when people bluntly restate the very simple assumptions necessary for your statements to count as jokes, the classic move of the buzzkill who is ruining your fun by declining to find you funny, you decide they have chronic anger and paranoia.

Paranoid is a standout word, here, because if you're being subtle and cute, then gosh, a person would have to be paranoid to hear you as a one-note repetitive critic and answer you back as if you were one. If you're not sounding as light and subtle as you feel, though, a person doesn't have to be paranoid at all to pick up what you're laying down and say it back to you.

You want to know how to respond? repeat back to them what you understand them to be saying, in the most neutral language you can muster. that's what they're doing, they'll recognize the tactic immediately. they won't like it either. this is at least as much fun as jokes at other people's expense, if not more so, and it can keep going as long as both players are willing.

also maybe just don't make fun of third parties. I have my own couple of friends who are dicks on one subject or another, and if they make fun of me maybe I'll roll my eyes and take it. If they start in on someone who isn't there and doesn't know they get talked about this way, they can fuck off and I'll tell them so. you can make up your own mind about how chronic my anger and paranoia levels are.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:11 PM on May 15, 2020 [3 favorites]

Don't feed the trolls!

No one on the internet is owed a response, and you can have the self-discipline to stay on topic.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:50 AM on May 16, 2020

P.s., example of what I think of as neutral joking (in general) is something like "My sister basically prays to her Justin Bieber poster every night, she loves him so much."
I get that there are some people who may not be able to tolerate such a remark about a political figure, which is fine (though immature)--that's how things are these days. If they're as sensitive about the same remark about a pop star, I'd say the problem becomes wholly there's.
posted by Jon44 at 8:30 AM on May 16, 2020

P.P.S, I was thinking of real world situations and it's interesting how divergent the cultures have become. I found this response very insightful on how different people can be in real world:
"I know someone who really hates cynicism and sarcasm - for whatever reason" [I, in fact, did grow up in a very sarcasm-heavy household]
On other side, this comment seems typical of online world where everything is a contest of one sort or another:
"I'm trying to think of a way to make a joke about a friend's devotion to a political figure that isn't in itself belligerent and offensive, and I'm coming up blank"
-- Really? Has this commenter never watched late-night hosts making fun of their own side?
posted by Jon44 at 8:46 AM on May 16, 2020

That kind of "teasing", especially when repeated, is not fun at all, if you're on the receiving end. It comes across as you trying to embarass her (if she's present) or trying to make yourself look good by making her look silly (if she's not). Both come across as immature and rather trying for anyone who's not a teenager.

If people aren't snapping at you more often, it's because they're rolling their eyes at you (perhaps when you're not present) and tolerating you, rather than laughing with you.

Worse is your attempt to call anyone who rightly takes umbrage as "immature". And also weird is how you're fixating on this issue enough to post about it twice on askme. Either this keeps happening to you because you keep popping out the same unpleasant "jokes", or it happened once and you somehow can't let go of the fact that your joke annoyed your friend/s.

This is on you, stop making jokes that make friends look silly. No-one in the world enjoys being at the butt end of that as often as you enjoy making them the butt.
posted by Omnomnom at 8:46 AM on May 16, 2020 [11 favorites]

Serious answer: I have seen and enjoyed good natured ribbing, and I'm going to assume that's what you mean.
The thing about it, though, is that it's based on mutual fun. It stops when one person signals that it's no fun any longer. If you persevere past this point it turns into something on a scale from tiresome to hurtful.

The key to playful teasing is reading the room and recognising when it's welcome, when it joins you rather than puts you on opposite sides.
It sounds like you're omitting this step.
posted by Omnomnom at 9:02 AM on May 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

[A couple of comments deleted. Jon44, AskMe isn't a venue for back-and-forth discussion or debate; you asked your questions, you're getting some answers, you can choose for yourself how to take the answers and mark the ones that are helpful for you. Answerers, please keep it constructive and not snarky.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:13 AM on May 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

Maybe try paying attention to how often you're making comments like these. If I were around you and you made this kind of joke once I might force a weak smile or internally roll my eyes, but I doubt you'd get much pushback. The fact that this is the second question you're asking about the same thing, and the way you're defending yourself as being subject to 'immature' people who can't 'tolerate a joke' makes me wonder if you're making these kind of remarks more often than you realize, to the point where people are tired of it and are trying to shut it down without directly asking you to do so.

It might also be worth considering what you hope to achieve in these interactions - you seem to recognize that the person you're talking about doesn't enjoy these kinds of comments, so what is your conversational aim here? Was the person you were talking about even in the conversation? In my experience, the bonding kind of "teasing" happens when the person is there to hear and tease back.

At any rate, whether you think they are or not, the person you're talking about obviously doesn't think your comments are neutral and I hope you're hearing that at least some other folks here agree. This seems like a situation where your best response to someone giving you negative feedback on your jokes is to find a different way of joking.
posted by DingoMutt at 10:59 AM on May 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

As a Funny Person I’ve had to learn that the world is not my audience. There’s a time and a place and my need to express my killer joke is not actually important in the scheme of things.

There’s a big, big difference between a late night host making an edgy joke in a performance, and that same host making fun of someone they know at the dinner table.
posted by kapers at 11:03 AM on May 16, 2020 [9 favorites]

I guess what I really had to learn was to discern my communication goals in each situation: was it to communicate effectively and enhance/affirm human connection, or was it to riff and perform?

The latter is okay in certain situations of course, but not all of them. I hurt people when I choose the wrong one and though it makes me feel defensive and misunderstood, ultimately that’s on me because I Went There when it wasn’t appropriate. You always risk hurting people and pissing them off (and being totally misconstrued and everyone thinking you’re an asshole) if you communicate in jokes. Been there.
posted by kapers at 11:30 AM on May 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I don’t get this. Self-deprecating humor from light night talk show hosts is not the same thing as making fun of your sister or your friend. Also, you seem to be upset that someone doesn’t think you are funny, that this makes them too sensitive or paranoid. Maybe your jokes just aren’t that funny? Or maybe they don’t like that kind of humor? Humor isn’t some objective thing. I don’t generally like negative humor myself. Jokes at the expense of the powerful are one thing (that’s punching up); jokes about loved ones ... aren’t always funny.

Try making these jokes about yourself (I love asparagus so much I set up an altar to it!) and maybe that will go over better. In the meantime, stop making negative comments about others in the forms of not-very-funny jokes and let this go.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:47 AM on May 16, 2020 [6 favorites]

You said that my comment is “typical of an online world where everything is a contest of one sort of another.” I think here you’ve given us a real-life example of your resorting to criticism (calling people immature, etc.) when you don’t like the way someone responds to your “humor.” I don’t even get how that relates to my comment. I didn’t see it as a contest, and I don’t know why you thought I did. I was honestly trying to think of something that works in real life (which, as others have pointed out, is not TV) and could not.

I used to work with someone who seemed to think she was in one of those sitcoms where all the characters constantly make smartass comments and hurl supposedly funny insults at each other. It was extremely tiresome and no one thought it was funny. Years later, whenever she comes up, all people talk about is how mean she was and what a relief it is that she’s gone. Very few people like insult humor in real life. Your friends are obviously not those people. What you do about it depends on whether you want to stay friends.
posted by FencingGal at 5:05 PM on May 16, 2020 [3 favorites]

Really? Has this commenter never watched late-night hosts making fun of their own side?

I spent three years as a writer for a late-night host, and if there's one thing I wish everybody understood about comedy, it's this:

Humor is just a channel of communication.

That means that nothing is off-limits for humor, because nothing is off-limits for communication. But it also means that you have to take responsibility for your jokes. If you offend somebody, you can't just dismiss it by saying "I was only joking!", any more than you could dismiss it by saying "I was only communicating!"

Two subjects that are notoriously tricky to communicate about are politics and other people's foibles. Humor doesn't make this communication any easier. If anything, it makes it more difficult, because deep sincerity is a useful tool for reducing offense -- and sincerety is hard to be funny about. So making a joke about somebody else's political foibles is the Produnova vault of comedy. It can be done, but if you make the slightest misstep, somebody's going to get hurt.

You are 100% correct that an experienced late night host, with the help of a full-time writing staff and a specialist comedy director, can inoffensively make this kind of joke at his own expense. That doesn't make it any easier for the rest of us to do it, let alone do it at somebody else's expense.

Of course, it also doesn't mean you can't do it! I have certainly met a few people in my life who have the miraculous ability to tease in a way that communicates respect rather than hostility. But I have met many more people who think they have that ability but don't. If your banter upsets somebody once a year, the problem might be with the other person. But if it happens to you more often, that might be a sign that this very specific comedy move is not within your wheelhouse.

Personally, I noticed years ago that I couldn't pull off this kind of teasing without occasionally hurting somebody's feelings, so I stopped doing it. I've got a Writers' Guild of America award for comedy writing, and I'm a former contributor to The Onion, so I definitely get satire. But doing it to my friends in real-time is beyond my skills, so I stopped doing it. There's no shame in joining me!
posted by yankeefog at 8:32 AM on May 17, 2020 [15 favorites]

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