The serious side of put-down humor

Dec 18 2007 by Peter Vajda Print This Article

You're standing in a group, talking, and one of the members starts shooting verbal "zingers" at you. Everybody gets a hearty laugh at your expense. Everybody but you.

Light (and not-so-light) insult humor has become almost a national pastime. When you're the butt of the jokes, you may try to shrug it off as harmless, but it stings. And if you're the one getting laughs at others' expense, you may not realize what you're revealing about yourself.

Let's shed some light and insight to this common workplace (and family) experience.

Verbal Abuse is Not Funny
For the past number of weeks, I've been engaged in coaching work, formally and informally, with groups and teams. Each of these groups had been intact for months; some, for years. Participants represented the spectrum of "types" that might be included in the myriad descriptions of the MBTI or DiSC-type assessments or profiles. So, nothing unusual in the participant makeup.

However, across teams and groups, I was struck by one behavior that stood out above all others, namely, the propensity for many of the members to consistently engage in making destructive, cutting, sarcastic remarks to and about others in their group or on their team.

Destructive comments ≠ personal or professional ≠ are those which are hurtful, demeaning, sarcastic and verbally abusive.

What You Say Matters
The comments I experienced were directed at folks' physical characteristics (hair, clothes), perspectives or ideas, life choices (others' choices of restaurants, movies, sports teams), folks' current performance, and even where others had worked or attended school.

These were not simply run-of-the-mill light comments. There was an underlying anger, resentment and destructive element wrapped inside.

On more than one occasion, I had to do a "double-take", and ask myself, "Did I really hear that?" "Did he really say that?" "Did she really throw that zinger at him?"

What continually came to me was "Why? What is this all about?"

In Western culture, the biting, sarcastic, demeaning put-down has become an art form, everywhere ≠ TV, movies, talk radio, sports events, journals and magazines. It's part of the fabric of everyday conversation. And more, many folks today see such behavior as "business as usual", as "no big deal."

In fact, when I asked some of these folks if they were aware of what they said, most responded, "No." or "So, what?" Like I had three heads or came from another planet. For many of these folks, their behavior is a true "blind spot."

There's Always A Reason


  • Can you think of a time recently when you made a sarcastic or demeaning remark to a teammate, colleague or co-worker "for the fun it?"
  • Can you remember a time when you were the recipient of another's sarcastic comments?
  • If you have a reputation for being witty or sharp because you are a master of sarcasm, how does that make you feel?
  • Would you ever ask the objects of your sarcasm how they feel?
  • What does sarcasm get you, personally?
  • Do you think others really respect you, or just go along to get along, when they respond in a laughing sense to you behavior?
  • Are you demeaning and sarcastic to your husband, wife, partner, children? How do they like that behavior? Do you ever ask them? Would you? If not, why not?
  • Did you ever tell a colleague or friend to stop using you as a target for their destructive words?
  • Did you ever want to but not speak up? Why?
  • Who would you be if sarcasm were not part of your personality? Would you lose some or much of your identity?

So, let's return to the question, "Why?". In my experience in the realm of psychology and psychodynamics, we understand most folks engage in put-downs, sarcasm and barbs as a way to look smart, witty and cool.

That's the upside for them. The downside is that the person for whom the comment is directed is often harmed, hurt, demeaned, or otherwise made the point of ridicule.

When I ask other group participants Ė the bystanders - why they often react with laughter, or "atta boy" comments, they generally say they don't know, they just do. "It was funny." Basically, a knee-jerk reaction.

The truth is many react this way in the "go along to get along" fashion because they don't want to stand out as different, serious, politically correct, etc. They want and need to be "one of the boys". So speaking out, or pushing back against such comments and behaviour, will only serve to get them ostracized. So, they laugh or jump into the banter. It's like a verbal gang rape.

The deal is, no matter how sharp one is, how educated, how senior in the hierarchy one is, how wealthy one is, no one has the right to strive to look witty, sharp or cool at the expense of another human being, at the expense of being disrespectful to another human being.

And, for those who have a need to do so, the underlying question is, "Why? What does it get you? Does it make any difference that you might be hurting someone else?"

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About The Author

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.

Older Comments

It's synchronistic that you are writing about this. I just witnessed a (very dear) female postal worker being put down by one of her male co-workers, and when I spoke up, like, HEY (I was smiling, at least), he gave ME a tongue lashing that basically wrote off the whole thing as, 'This is what we do here. It's our thing. We aren't bothered by it. So butt out.' I was flabbergasted. I actually came home and googled 'put down humor' to see if many folks were saying much about it. Shockingly, they weren't. I discussed it over a manicure and the woman next to me was listening in and said, 'I'm a manager and if that happened in my office, there would be trouble.' I later asked the female in question how she felt about it. 'Do I need to stampede for sensitivity training?' She said, 'No. Sometimes it hurts, but, no.' I could see she would not be comfortable standing up for herself (which is precisely why I tried to do it for her). I personally want to see this addressed more. I live in a fairly rural community where Macho Still Rules and women co-workers are less apt to stick up for themselves, clearly. Whatever we can do to raise the bar on civility is another way to make our offices more humane places to work, where entering does not require heavy armor to get through the day.

Kathryn Hall Northern California

hello kathryn,

i too was googling this subject (put down humour is in my opinion the best description of my issue with a particular 'friend') and came across this website and your comment. first, i would like to say that i admire you and wish there were more people who stand up for those who cannot/do not want to stand up for themselves. secondly, i'm still looking for strategies/verbal clues as to how to deal with people, including acquaintances and friends who make jokes at other's expense, put them down to be funny/witty and who are probably just used to getting away unchallenged by their 'audiences'. my husband and i just spent an evening with friends (he has known most of these people for several years, i'm new to the circle) and the couple i know longest/best both regularly make remarks or talk to me in a way that makes me not want to meet up with them again. obviously, i cannot cut off the ties because of my husband being very good old friends with the guy, but i have in the past always gone down the route of staying away from anyone like that. guess what,, this couple is taking us out for dinner in a couple of days (they were our witnesses at the wedding and this is part of their wedding gift to us) and i am dreading it. instead of trying to have a meaningful conversation and allowing us all to get to know each other better, it's all about (and my husband unfortunately, like most canadians seem to be doing - sorry, but this really strikes me as a canadian trait) being funny and witty and sassy and quickwitted - which leaves me feeling out of place and not able to connect with them and not wanting to socialise with them. anyway, the two most recent remarks by this couple i took offense with were at a rodeo, where the guy tells me that there'll be ladies wrestling sheep. this was my first rodeo, but being european, my life hasn't been exactly the same as theirs, so after knowing these people for less than 2 years i'm already tired of the situation. later, at the pub, his significant other points to my wedding ring (which i was wearing on my right hand, because the ring was too lose on my right ring finger due to the colder weather and i didn't want to lose it again) and tries to be funny asking me if i was mad at my husband. (i'm thinking of not wearing my ring to dinner when we meet them and showing her my bare hands and adding, look niki, no ring, i'm filing for divorce...grrrr....i bet if i tried to be 'funny' like this with them, they'd give me blank stares and the sad thing is, my husband would side with them. another thing, they know i'm vegetarian and i'm sure we've discussed what i do and don't eat before, so for the guy to ask me if i don't shrimp again and then talk at me as if i were a teenager experimenting with vegetarianism when i've told them i've been a vegetarian since i'm 5 ('but you do eat vegetables and they used to live!'). or his girlfriend coming over to our place with 2 minutes notice to get me out of the house (i'm a homemaker and although i enjoy it, after having worked outside the home for years, people, especially the women around me who work part/full time, seem to think that i must be bored with vaccuuming all day, assuming that's all i do (never asking what else i do) and thinking they're doing me a favour by dropping in unannounced and/or when it suits them to take me somewhere or introducing me to new people (because i'm still relatively new here and not working/studying yet) who, like themselves, are somehow unable to establish a connection with someone new through meaningful conversation, such as questions and answers, and instead stick to superficial impersonal subjects not engaging me really.

sorry, i realise i was venting, probably because i haven't met anyone here who seems to be able to have a proper conversation...

i hope your colleague realises that if she doesn't learn how to stand up for herself and start doing it, it will be detrimental for her in the long run.