What Makes a Joke Offensive? It Depends on Who Tells it

Home $ LIFESTYLE $ RELATIONSHIPS $ What Makes a Joke Offensive? It Depends on Who Tells it



Research indicates that many people enjoy laughing at crude comedy, including death and moral taboos. Offensive jokes can be perceived as funny as long as they somehow come off as benign and not hurting anyone intentionally.

Many comedians and scientists have long tried to understand the ingredients of humor, and many theories have explained why humor tends to fail due to one reason or another. Such ideas indicate that jokes that are incongruous and release tension are bound to be funny.

However, any inappropriate joke that brings aggressive tension can be perceived as not funny, and people do not enjoy them.  Other factors, such as who is telling the joke, tend to play a significant role in the delivery and the ultimate success of the joke.

Being in on the Joke

Many of us tend to think that it is more permissible for people to openly judge or criticize social groups to which they belong rather than when they do not belong to the one they are joking about.

For instance, many Americans would be okay and find it funny when their country’s faults are being called out by fellow Americans rather than when a non-American does the same. This is called the intergroup sensitivity effect.

Jokes on Sexuality

To test this theory, a study was conducted where people were shown fake Facebook profiles belonging either to straight men or gay men, making jokes about gay people. Participants had to rate how funny or offensive they found the joke. Results indicated that if the poster was gay, people found the joke funnier, acceptable, and less offensive.

An example can be “What do you call a gay cowboy? A Jolly Rancher” or “Why are most politicians in the closet gay? Because they can only mandate.”

Such a joke highlights the stereotype that many gay people are likely to find offensive, as it indicates that gays are likely to be very feminine and jolly. Hence, if a fellow gay told this joke, it might not be received as badly, especially if the crowd is lighthearted. However, a heterosexual male has no right to make such a joke.

That being said, it’s important to understand that one should never make such inappropriate jokes.

Jokes on Race

This similar concept was also tested for a race. In this study, fake profiles of people belonging to an Asian, American, or Black ethnicity were shown to be joking about Asians. Results indicated that the joke was found to be less offensive and funny when the Asian was joking about it but not so much if a black or white person was doing the same.

An example of this can be seen at the Oscars in 2016, where Chris Rock took a moment to introduce PricewaterhouseCoopers, who is responsible for tallying the votes. Rock said, “They sent us their most dedicated, accurate, and hard-working representatives.” I want to welcome Ming Zhu, Bao Ling, he further added, “if anyone is upset about this joke, just tweet it on your phone, which these kids also made.”

This joke had three distinct and offensive stereotypes about Asians, minority students born as a math genius, foreign child laborers who assemble tech gadgets for small amounts of money and take away American jobs, and silent and obedient.

This joke is likely to be perceived well if made by a fellow Asian American rather than Chris Rock.

Why Does Group Membership Matter?

By now, you must be wondering why group membership matters so much when it comes to jokes. The answer to that is simple. It has to do with the way the audience tends to interpret the joker’s intent.

A joke can be labeled as antisocial where it is used to inflict harm and reinforce stereotypes about a social group. In contrast, it can be prosocial where humor is used to empower the stereotypes about a social group. Hence, when a joke is made self-referential, the audience is likely to perceive it as prosocial and find it funnier.

For example, when a Chinese person makes a joke in a Chinese accent, the audience is likely to perceive it as benign and harmless as it can be a satire on how others portray Chinese or are just affectionately showing their own culture. Hence, no matter the real reason behind the joke, it is likely going to be taken lightly.

However, if a white person makes the same joke, audiences are less likely to give them the benefit of the doubt and most likely perceive them as racist. Hence, in reality, when a person of the same group or race makes a joke, we perceive it as having a license for it irrespective of their motives.

Let’s look at some offensive jokes below and how they would be perceived.

Offensive Jokes Explained

“My wife left a note on the fridge that said, ‘This isn’t working.’ I’m not sure what she’s talking about. I opened the fridge door, and it’s working fine!” This joke, regardless of its intentions, if made by a woman, would be found humorous by fellow women.

However, if a man makes this joke, it is likely to be seen as a misogynist, where feminists would portray it as a patriarchal ideology where women are seen as less intelligent in handling equipment around the house. They need a man’s help to resolve these issues.

“What’s your name, son?” The principal asked his student. The kid replied, “D-d-d-dav-dav-David, sir.” “Do you have a stutter?” the principal asked. The student answered, “No sir, my dad has a stutter, but the guy who registered my name was a real jerk.”

Again, the above example creates a joke about a human disability that people suffer from. If such a joke were made by a fellow who suffers from such a problem, it would be taken lightly. However, making this joke in a social setting without belonging to the group can be perceived as highly offensive against people with disabilities and those who suffer from speech impairments.

Hence, offensive jokes can be a thin line to walk on and they should only be made in the appropriate social settings among the right people to prevent any potential problems.


Recent Posts