The Thin Gray Line: Having Fun vs. Making Fun of Others


Humor, jokes, and levity are important in everyday life. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, making it a super-healthy way to release the stress of everyday pressures. 

It also has social advantages—making others laugh is a great way for us to bond with them while lightening up the work environment. Jokes are how we establish connections; after all, they help us feel united and part of a positive shared experience.

So why do I mention it at all?

There’s a very delicate line between having fun with others and making fun of them. When we’re suffering from a lot of mental or physical strain, it’s easy for that line to be crossed.

This article is about ridiculing others: making jokes at their expense, with or without realizing it, and especially when it’s a symptom of stress.

I’ll describe how it manifests, why it happens, and what you or those you coach can do to rein it in.

Ridiculing Others: What Does It Look Like? 

Very few people enjoy being ridiculed, made fun of, or laughed at, yet it happens more often than we’d like. It takes on many forms, as well.

You might have noticed one of your co-workers laugh at another for tripping over or been guilty of mimicking someone’s appearance yourself. 

Intentionally or otherwise, playful teasing sometimes turns into taunts about another’s characteristics or shortcomings. Jokes turn into jeering about their accents or personality quirks. People may still laugh at times like these, but the truth is that the impact varies hugely from harmless fun.

So, it helps to understand the potentially damaging impacts of ridiculing others. 

Specifically, making fun of those around you can:

  1. Damage group relationships. Derision and over-the-line teasing can result in hostile group dynamics and offend or upset. This harms interpersonal relationships and makes it more difficult for people to trust and open up to each other.
  2. Trigger a vicious cycle. Whether you make fun deliberately or unintentionally, doing so can kick-start a downward spiral. The offended person may also struggle with their own consequent feelings of insecurity, which can result in them making fun of others in turn.
  3. Hamper communication. Many people tend to feel psychologically unsafe when they’re worried they’ll be made fun of. This can discourage them from sharing their feelings or opinions, preventing them from realizing their full potential. It can also cultivate a toxic environment in which group members are less likely to express their authentic selves.

Where To Draw The Line?

The line between “funny” and “making fun” can be difficult to discern, but here are a few questions that you can ask yourself to see if you’re going too far.

Do I ever…

  • Laugh at others’ mistakes? Ridiculing someone for (literal or figurative!) slip-ups, like bumping into something or falling over, can be hurtful. If you’re poking fun at someone’s confusion or innocent questions, that may also signify that you’re veering into a mockery. 
  • Make jokes about how others look? Deriding someone for their physical appearance, such as their nose, weight, clothes, or height, can often be hurtful to the other person.
  • Ridicule someone’s interests or abilities? This might include taunting someone for their shortcomings or hobbies that aren’t conventionally “cool.” 
  • Laugh at others for being left out? This involves mocking someone for being excluded from a social group or deliberately cutting them out of events and activities.

If you’ve answered “yes” to any of the above questions, it’s not a bad idea to reassess your behavior. 

Think about whether you might be hurting others with what you consider funny or entertaining and whether it might be time for some stress management instead!

Why Do We Ridicule Others When We’re Stressed?

There are a few reasons why we might mock or deride others when we’re under pressure. This reaction tends to be a learned behavior acquired from our surroundings or through socializing.

We may ridicule others because:

  • We don’t realize we’re doing it or how it affects the other person. We don’t always intend to insult or offend and simply do it without anticipating its hurtful impacts.
  • We’re trying to hide our own insecurities, either consciously or unconsciously. Making others seem “smaller” can be a way to make ourselves feel bigger or more powerful, or it can improve our chances of fitting in with a social group.
  • We are venting. Mockery can be an avoidance strategy, an unhealthy way to express frustration or anger that we struggle to communicate directly. If opening up is something that you struggle with, making fun of others could be an easier (albeit more harmful) method of emotional expression.

Insecurities, poorly-conveyed frustration, and a perceived need to fit in all fall under one umbrella—ridiculing others is often a defense mechanism when we experience some form of stress. Wherever that stems from social pressure or too much built-up worry, it’s a common enough symptom to warrant its own Stress! Coaching Card

3 Ways to Stop Making Fun of Others

If you’ve recognized that you’re prone to this tendency, congratulations on accepting it. It’s the first part of your self-improvement journey!

The next time you catch yourself about to say something hurtful, here are three things you can do instead.

1. Be Joyful Without Hurting Anyone

If your goal is to make others laugh, try thinking of other ways to achieve your objective. There are plenty of kinder, more considerate jokes you can make that bring a smile to people’s faces; ask yourself:

  • Am I doing or saying this to entertain others?
  • If so, are there less harmful jokes that I can make?
  • What more entertaining things could I say at nobody else’s expense?

2. Build Your Self-Confidence

If a lack of self-esteem is what causes you to make fun of others, consider targeting the root cause. Building your self-confidence involves:

  • Acknowledging that you are insecure – Recognizing your insecurities is the first step to embracing them or identifying changes that you want to make and implementing them.
  • Lowering your expectations – Try to accept that nobody is perfect (yourself included) and recognize that falling short of your own high standards is simply part of the human experience. Do what you can to adopt a self-compassionate attitude when you’re feeling insecure.
  • Spend more time with positive people – Surrounding yourself with the right kind of company can enhance your self-esteem and make it easier for you to adopt a positive attitude.
  • Stop comparing yourself to others – This puts your focus on the wrong person and prevents you from being yourself. Everyone has their own challenges—comparing yourself to other people can cause you to feel resentful, and it’s a game you’ll never win.

The more you build up your self-confidence, the more secure you will feel from within and the less likely you’ll be to poke fun at others (then regret it later).

3. Treat Others As You Want To Be Treated

The age-old adage rings true here—when you catch yourself crossing the line into “unkind” and ridiculing others, it’s a good idea to try and step into their shoes. 

Ask yourself how you’d feel if you were the one being made fun of. With a little empathy, you can check your behavior and find a better way to manage your stress or worry.

Nicolien Dellensen

Nicolien Dellensen, Senior Consultant and behavioral specialist and creator and owner of the ’Sphere of Influence 360º’ a comprehensive concept and (360) online tool about interactive dynamics.

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