my coworkers constantly joke around when I need work answers

A reader writes:

I have two coworkers who tend to go off on joke-tangents, and it tends to draw out meetings and discussions longer than they need to last and sometimes makes it hard to get things done or get information.

It’s pretty irritating. Like, none of the jokes are offensive in and of themselves, but I want to be able to ask “do you think we should use XYZ software package or write our own functions to do similar things?” without them yes-anding the conversation into absurdity. I think it would irritate me less if these two coworkers didn’t have other communication problems – one is extremely bad at the concept of user-friendliness and never provides context for anything, the other often assumes I don’t know things and treats me like I’m stupid when I try to ask for clarification or discuss the pros and cons of something.

I like working around people I can have fun with, but it’s super frustrating when a simple conversation is five times as long as it should be because someone had to show off how witty he is.

Yeah, that’s annoying.

A joke or two isn’t a big deal — but once it goes past that point, it’s reasonable to say, “Soooo, getting back to the issue at hand…” or “I’m delighted you two are having fun with this, but I’ve got to meet a deadline” or “Hilarious as this is, I’ve only got a couple of minutes here and need to know X.”

Beyond that, do you have enough rapport with either of them that you’d feel comfortable pointing out the pattern and asking them to stop? For example, you could say, “Can I ask you a favor? You always make conversations funnier, but when I’m trying to get information quickly or just get through a meeting efficiently, joking around so much can end up making things take a lot longer. It’s hard to appreciate the humor when I’m in a rush.”

Even if you don’t have much rapport with them, you could still say this — although in that case you’d risk them labeling you a stick-in-the-mud. That’s not necessarily a problem though, just something you’d want to be prepared for going into it.

One thing to keep in mind: In this kind of situation, it’s easy to get so annoyed that you inadvertently end up with a zero-tolerance approach where you’re stamping out all joy and mirth in your interactions with these two. It sounds like they’ve already done that to you, but in the interest of your professional reputation, you want to make sure not to do it back.

{ 195 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. AlwhoisthatAl

    I have people who do this in training sessions. It’s important not to encourage them – do you smile or do the annoyed half-laugh ? I don’t. I just stare at them unsmilingly and then repeat my question. They do it because they think they are funny “Look at us, we’re a double act”. If you just ignore totally the alleged jokes and whenever they say “Lighten up it’s a joke” say “I though jokes were supposed to be funny” they will soon get the idea.
    I also like to, during lunch with the trainees, be as entertaining as possible…..just to emphasise the point.

    Reply
    1. Emi.

      “I though jokes were supposed to be funny”
      Yikes, that’s pretty aggressive. I would definitely start with something much gentler (like Alison’s scripts), especially as a peer. You have more leeway to be sharp when you’re an instructor.

      Reply
      1. FlibertyG

        I guess it depends, do you value your relationship with these people or not really? This approach will work, but it won’t make you seem very likable to these people (which may be totally fine in your case!). When dealing with peers I often need to preserve the relationship so we can continue to work together, and I think Alison’s scripts are good for that. You acknowledge their humor, give them at least a little pat on the head, but then redirect to to the task.

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      2. TootsNYC

        I agree, this is pretty aggressive. Even if you’re the instructor.

        I’d go with something like, “I’d prefer to stay on the topic, please” or “I’m sorry, these jokes are derailing, and that’s a problem right now.” Or even, “This is not the time; the jokes are pretty distracting.”

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        1. Michele

          I agree. You have to be really good at delivery to not come off as a jerk when saying something like that. I prefer something along the lines of “Let’s stay on task so we can get back to work” or “let’s not make the meeting longer than it needs to be–no one likes long meetings” to be better.

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      3. Matilda Jefferies

        I don’t see it as aggressive, but more like…participating in the banter, somehow. It’s hard to explain, but that feels to me like it would be encouraging them to try a different joke, or to make some sort of a comeback to your comeback. I don’t think it would be harmful necessarily, but I don’t think it would meet the stated goal of shutting down the conversation.

        My response would be something like “That’s fine, but I still need the TPS report.” Disengage from the joking part entirely, and focus on the work-related question at hand.

        Reply
        1. Marisol

          It reads to me like mutual chops-busting, not aggressive at all. Play-acting aggression, i.e. teasing. The jokesters teased Al, and so Al teased back.

          Reply
            1. Marisol

              teasing someone back? I see it as speaking the other person’s language–they approached you speaking teasing language, so you teased back, the same as if someone suddenly said “ca va bien?” and you said, “oui merci.” Moreover I think this is a culture thing, specifically a guy culture thing, since class clowns are almost invariably men, and since AlwhoisthatAl is likely to be a man (given that he goes by Al). “I thought jokes are supposed to be funny” is kind of a good-natured way to say, “shut up dude.” I’m curious to hear more from you about your objection though.

              Reply
              1. Emi.

                That’s an interesting perspective, thank you! My take is that if you say “Can’t you take a joke?” and I say “I thought jokes were supposed to be funny,” that’s an invitation for you to say “Maybe my humor is too highbrow for you” or something like that, not a good-natured “Shut up, dude.” So maybe we’re bantering, but I still don’t have your cover sheet for the TPS report, which is what I need.

                I agree with your point about “speaking the other person’s language”–it’s just that for the OP, that language is what’s getting in the way of work. (I also dunno if it would work here, since at least to me, “Can’t you take a joke?” sounds like “You do not speak my language/You are not in my joking circle,” which puts “I thought jokes were supposed to be funny” in a different light.)

                Reply
                1. Marisol

                  yeah, it always depends somewhat on the intent of the other person–if someone wanted to be a really confrontational douche about it, they could keep it up instead of backing down. But a lot of times (most times?) the guy will realize he’s been, checked, as it were, and back off. It’s like wolves playfully nipping each other.

                  I definitely wasn’t suggest this approach for the OP–I was more defending Al’s suggestion in the abstract because people are seeing aggression that I don’t think is there. Although, I don’t think it would be the *worst* strategy for her to try, either. As long as the goal is the shut the bs down, I think she play it straight or use humor, as long as she’s not conciliatory/placating/allowing her time to be wasted.

      4. Mookie

        Delivered in a light tone but with a steely, pointed expression, they should be able to handle it or develop a better sense of humor about themselves.

        Reply
  2. Michele

    I had a similar problem at work. It was bad enough that the two people would joke around and start riffing off each other, but they would get really condescending in the process. Attempts to say something during the meeting got nowhere. If anything, it made them worse. I ended up having a conversation with my boss about it. It was a tough conversation because she had been encouraging it (she would like to be more popular than she is), but I presented it as an issue that affected not just me, but other people. I pointed to specific examples of people shutting down and getting discouraged by the behavior and being unable to get questions answered. To her credit, the behavior stopped, and the meetings became much more professional. I didn’t tell anyone that I had spoken to her, but I have noticed that as trust has started to grow in the meetings again, people in general are developing a better attitude about them and are more willing to bring up questions or problems.
    It is definitely something that needs to be addressed, and it might have to be addressed with the boss to bring it under control.

    Reply
    1. FlibertyG

      It’s so hard because inside jokes are a bonding mechanism, and they feel great when you’re doing them and you’re the inside … but they are by nature, exclusionary. I think this is a growing pain whenever small orgs expand, or take steps to increase diverse POV’s. It’s a trap I suspect we all fall into easily. I see it in my social life more than my work life, but it’s still there.

      Reply
      1. Michele

        I am not talking about inside jokes, and I don’t think the LW was either. And even if we were, inside jokes should never be allowed to derail a meeting or make people afraid to speak up.

        Reply
        1. FlibertyG

          You’re right, I just think the dynamic is similar; these two know each other’s sense of humor and (apparently) find themselves amusing together. OP … doesn’t :)

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        2. fposte

          I didn’t see FlibertyG as saying that they should, just adding a dimension about the viewpoint of the people on the joking side, which can be helpful to keep in mind.

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            1. fposte

              Can you clarify, then? I thought you gave a pretty frosty response to somebody who made an interesting point and I presumed it was because you hadn’t seen how it was relevant. Talking about the viewpoint of the jokesters isn’t stating that the derailing is fine, so I wasn’t sure why you went in that direction.

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              1. Michele

                The viewpoint of the jokers (who were not making inside jokes, but it doesn’t matter if they were) does not matter if they are making people afraid to speak up and if they make it impossible to successfully conduct a meeting. Meetings don’t have to be humorless, but the humor can never cross the line to bullying, which is what I was seeing.

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              2. AD

                So in an earlier post today and now here, we have longtime commenters tone-policing a little heavy-handedly. Michele’s comment didn’t seem frosty to me.

                Reply
                1. fposte

                  This may be too much of a derail, but I thought both that post and the one I responded to weren’t really in the spirit of AAM’s “Be kind” commenting directive, and we don’t actually have a ban against encouraging people to follow that. I imagine if it gets excessive Alison will figure something out.

                2. AD

                  I’m just sensing a little bit of a double standard here. Prolific commenters are given the leeway to critique others, but when someone else offers a differing opinion they get a hand-slap and are told to “move on”. I’m guessing Alison will delete this comment anyway, but I wanted to voice my disappointment at the cliquishness that’s happened here. I don’t anticipate wanting to return to this site to comment. Thanks!

                3. Ask a Manager Post author

                  It’s not a hand slap. It’s just moderation, which is what keeps the site a pleasant place to be. I’ve disagreed with regulars on this stuff plenty, and told regulars to move on quite a bit, believe me. In this case, I happened to agree with fposte. It’s certainly possible that I agree with regulars more often about this kind of thing, who knows — but it would be because they’re more likely to be familiar with the way I run the site, not out of cliquishness.

                  But I definitely agree that if it bugs you, it’s better to find a site whose moderation you prefer rather than stay and be irked by it.

      2. Noobtastic

        Inside jokes ARE a great bonding mechanism, but they do need to be able to expand along with the organization.

        For example, if a new reader comes along and asks, “What’s the deal with Wakeen?”, someone posts the link, new person reads it, and now they are one of the gang.

        And excellent manager will find some in-jokes and set up means for them to grow with the group.

        Reply
    2. OP

      Yes, my problem is not just that they joke, it’s the overall pattern, and condescention is a part of it for one of them. He’s responded with a pretty hostile tone when he joked about something, I gave a suggestion based on what he seemed like he was trying to communicate, and he responded “I don’t think you know what I’m talking about.” I was so shocked I didn’t say anything buti wish I’d said “actually I don’t because you thought joking around was more important than communicating clearly.”

      Reply
        1. Emi.

          I would treat the condescension as a separate issue from the joking around, unless he’s using the joking as cover for the condescension, but it sounds like they’re separate.

          Reply
      1. Cobol

        I have a coworker who does this a lot. Honestly it’s because he’s not that good and has spent his whole life as a relationship guy, and has nothing else to offer.
        Not that this is necessarily your situation, but it’s good to examine if the people really can change, or if you wish they could.

        Reply
      2. AnonMarketer

        Woah, okay, yeah, I retract my earlier statement your co-workers possibly not being jerks—he most definitely is; yikes!

        Reply
  3. AnonMarketer

    As a sarcastic person myself who jokes around a lot, I’d honestly switch the approach of these things. Saying things like “Sooo….” or “Hilarious as this is…” is a VERY different kind of sarcasm and can be construed as incredibly rude. I can understand someone’s frustration with this, but it’s easier (and shows you’re the bigger person) to just to say, “Hey, I appreciate the humor, but I REALLY have to catch this deadline.” I do this with one of my co-workers a lot, and we’re they most sarcastic people ever, and we both spin off into tangents, but by immediately drawing the line at “Hey, not now, I’m super busy,” the point is clear without being, well… making you look like you’re **** off.

    Reply
    1. Liet-Kynes

      “Saying things like “Sooo….” or “Hilarious as this is…” is a VERY different kind of sarcasm and can be construed as incredibly rude.”

      It’s also incredibly rude to be the class clown in every situation whether it’s called for or not, and to implicitly require others to rein you in when it becomes inappropriate or a waste of time. So, while getting cut off at the knees by a “Hilarious as this is….” might be kind of a harsh zing, don’t dismiss the frustration the tangents and sarcasm can cause someone who’s focused on a task and in a hurry.

      Reply
      1. AnonMarketer

        Yes, but rudeness doesn’t need to be met with rudeness; particularly in the business environment. Learned that one the hard way, unfortunately. :(

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        1. Liet-Kynes

          Sure, and hopefully people will take the jokes in the spirit they’re intended, but my point is don’t be surprised if someone who’s busy, stressed out, and not in the mood responds with a bit of an edge. Especially if they feel like the humorous response devalues their request.

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          1. Michele

            “Especially if they feel like the humorous response devalues their request”
            Yes. I think that this is the major problem with people joking around like this in meetings. Typically, if someone asks a question in a meeting, it is about something that they have been working on for a while and are unable to solve themselves. They are already frustrated. Humorous responses can make them feel belittled or mocked, and that is extremely counterproductive. Humor has its place, but when people are asking for help, that is not one of them.

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              1. Michele

                It could be, but I tend to see men bully women in other ways. When I have seen it happen, it has been a “mean girls” situation like we were back in junior high.

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              2. JHunz

                I don’t know, it sounds like these particular coworkers do it to everyone, as an equal-opportunity annoyance

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            1. OP

              Yes, and also I’m the only woman on a technical team of men. This is different from the other times men have used “jokes” to harass me for speaking up for myself but I can’t help but wonder if the intent is similar sometimes.

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              1. CM

                Aha, this is valuable context.

                My approach in this situation is to just repeat and rephrase my question until I get an answer, and not react at all to the joking. “So, do you think we should use XYZ or write our own?” [Mostly irrelevant stuff and jokes.] “OK, it sounds like you think we should use XYZ because writing our own will be too error-prone. Is that right?” “I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. [Long explanation.]” “Are you saying you think we should use XYZ, or write our own?”

                Reply
      2. FlibertyG

        I think there’s a tone thing here. If OP can deliver these lines with a smile and touch of humor, while redirecting, I think it can be a smooth interaction – if you’re picturing a very blunt tone it could be more aggressive. I can see delivering these lines without offending the jokers.

        Reply
        1. LBK

          Yeah, I think “while I appreciate the humor, I have a deadline” could also come off really snarky if delivered in a certain tone. How you say it is more important than what you say in this context.

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        2. Rachael

          It obviously depends on the situation, but I’ve had success clearing my throat and saying (in a light tone after chuckling) “Now let’s get down to business, sir/ma’am”. Every time I’ve said it they chuckle and then we get what I need.

          It may be different because I’m a project manager and I need to build relationships so I have slight banter before and after I “get down to business” and it lets them feel that they are heard.

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          1. Lucie

            Another project manager here. I tend to do something similar, but in the long run my ability to have a good relationship with everyone is key to getting anything done, and I’ve found being too serious about everything keeps other people I work with from wanting to reach out to me with a problem on their end and it’s harder to address the problems then.

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    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      I think this might be a matter of tone, though. Having now heard Alison’s voice on podcasts, when I hear “Hilarious as this is,” it’s not said in a sarcastic or demeaning way. It’s more of a light-hearted, kind nudge to get back on track. So delivery is going to be really important for OP because otherwise, as you note, it comes across as hostile/rude. It’s tough because the coworkers are being rude, and it’s easy to feel paralyzed about countering rudeness with rudeness. But I think that, if delivered the right way, Alison’s suggestions provide a non-rude way to redirect the conversation.

      Reply
    3. LCL

      Interesting perspective. From my view, as someone who was raised surrounded by sarcasm and tries to be less sarcastic, I think “hilarious as this is” is the perfect response because it acknowledges that the speaker is attempting humor, but you don’t have time for it and want to focus on business. What about that statement appears rude?

      Reply
      1. AnonMarketer

        My perspective is my sarcasm comes from a place of good, light-hearted intent; I’ve never heard OP or Allison’s voice, so I see this sarcasm coming off more harsh and annoyed, which it possibly seems the point that OP is at right now.

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        1. LBK

          Interesting. In an office context, I think sarcasm usually comes from a place of cynicism and frustration. I’m pretty sarcastic in my personal life but I keep it out of the office because I think it’s usually a drag on the environment and just promotes negativity.

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          1. AnonMarketer

            Ah, that’s interesting, and makes sense. My workplace is a startup, so we have people wearing boardshorts and flip flops to work more often than not; so our environment (at least for one half of the office—tech/software/creative) is pretty lax unless we’re crunching—it’s pretty common for my co-workers in that part of the office to trade verbal barbs with each other. I’ve mentioned this in a previous open post before, but it took me a while to figure out what I can get away with and who (i.e. I had to DRASTICALLY change my approach with the other side of the office over the course of two to three months because they don’t operate that way). It’s possible these co-workers might not have picked this up for OP yet.

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            1. LBK

              If it works for you it works for you, but in my experience that kind of environment can become exhausting in the long run. It’s fun for a while until it’s not, especially for people who don’t want to engage in it and are thus just forced to be around it.

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              1. FlibertyG

                I think it works best in homogeneous offices (where everybody has the same background/perspective) … which may not be the most effective , and is not really something to strive for.

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                1. Liet-Kynes

                  Such as startups.

                  I’m with you guys. Groups of people very much like one another can use humor to form an insular, exclusive atmosphere where people not in on the humor style, references, and common experiences feel very left out. My old officemate and I could get brutally sarcastic, but when shit needed done, we were pretty srs biznez, and same when dealing with clients and folks who didn’t sit with us all day.

                2. LBK

                  My only caution here is that a) you probably aren’t flipping the switch/keeping it out of sight of audiences who don’t want to be involved as much as you think you are, and b) it can be tough to genuinely gauge who wants to be involved or not because people like the OP sometimes just end up playing along so they don’t rock the boat and because they need to maintain decent relationships with people to get stuff done.

                  If you and your snark buddies want to hang out at happy hour after work, go for it, but I really think you do a disservice to yourselves and others to engage in it in the office.

                3. Michele

                  LBK-Especially since OP says she is the only woman in an office full of men. I have been in that position, and you have to be very careful about how you handle yourself. She probably doesn’t want to waste political capital over this.

          2. FlibertyG

            I do agree that sarcasm is cultural and should be deployed with caution; while it’s often hilarious to me, it can really go astray – and it CAN be used in a bleak, actually-spewing-negativity way. (This person, when called out, will unfailing say “can’t you take a JOKE, jeez?!?!” and is also mentally a twelve year old boy).

            Reply
        2. Super Anon for This

          You might be coming from a good place, but the person on the receiving end isn’t getting anything good. They are getting sarcasm and a time delay on a question they might be in a hurry to get answered.

          I understand what you are saying, but as a customer service person who has a lot of regular clients and coworkers who try to be funny, it is exhausting to have to listen to someone’s humor every day, and to feel you have to play along.

          Some of my colleagues clearly expect funny and witty responses back. If you don’t play along, you aren’t a “team player”, you’re not “fitting into the culture”.

          Never mind the fact that you don’t have to be a comedian to do a job well, and that it really saps your energy to be forced to come up with new witty retorts every time you want to pass along a report or ask a question or even pass someone in the hallway.

          Reply
          1. AnonMarketer

            I don’t know, my response from people has always been the opposite unless I’m with the small section of co-workers I’m a part of—button up, just do your job, etc. To me, that’s SUPER draining and super tiring. I moved out of red-tape corporate and large agencies to get away from that. I just felt beaten down day after day.

            I don’t expect people to necessarily find me funny—many just shrug their shoulders and we move on with the meeting. Eventually people find a give and take. I do agree with others that culture and role does play a part—customer-facing people tend to react different than creatives or techs, etc. YMMV. I like to think I’ve tuned my approach enough where I’ve hopefully found a somewhat happy medium (and if not, no one’s since given me feedback on it!). There are some coworkers I can goof around with, and some I simply nod my head, go “yup, sure, I’ll do this,” and keep going. I’ve been described as “eccentric” my entire life and “weird” by my peers growing up, and I’m at the age where I realize that’s only so changeable. I’m always a work in progress and toning myself down is always something I strive to work on (a very long and sometimes painful process), but I am who I am—though hopefully people don’t think I’m anything beyond somewhat strange!

            That being said, however, I’ve read some of OP’s replies and what’s going on with their co-workers, and her co-workers DO seem openly hostile; in which case, I retract my previous statement.

            (Also, somehow curious if we somehow know each other with that username? Could be reading too much into it; haha.)

            Reply
            1. AnonMarketer

              Quick addendum: I AM seeing that the vast majority of people (in this thread at least), don’t seem to appreciate this kind of personality and humor, which is pretty eye-opening; and is definitely something to consider in my plans for future improvement. :)

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              1. SusanIvanova

                Context is everything. In a casual conversation, joke away. Meetings need to stay on track so we can get them over with.

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            2. Kas

              For me, in most cases, one quip and then back to business would be fine. It’s the constant joking around and refusing to get to the point that is frustrating.

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        3. esra (also a Canadian)

          That’s interesting. I mean, sarcasm by definition generally conveys contempt or disdain for something.

          I understand that you gotta do what you gotta do to maintain relationships, but I think it sucks that OP would have to spend so much time being delicate around these guys’ feelings, when they can’t answer a simple question without cracking a joke.

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      2. FlibertyG

        Agree, I think class clowns are generally seeking attention for their humor, and this gives them a little bit of that in the hopes that they can redirect. Whereas if you go for a stone-cold humorless response (“this is not an appropriate situation for humor, Chadwick! I am trying to complete a work task!”) I think it makes them want to escalate.

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        1. Marisol

          I guess my reaction to that is, “ok, so let them escalate.” In my experience, a cold response makes the person joking feel embarrassed and they don’t escalate, but even if they do…what’s the worst that could happen? The bottom line is, the “humorless” person is acting in good faith, trying to get work done, so even if both parties, say, wind up being disciplined by HR, the humorless person is on solid ground because they’re trying to do their job. I guess I personally would prefer an open clash of wills, where I knew I was on moral high ground, than being forced to try to placate someone who was behaving badly in the first place.

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          1. Elsajeni

            I think the reason to stop them from escalating is so you can actually get the information you need, though! I understand your point that you’d have the moral high ground, but personally, I’d rather cede ground, placate an annoying person, and get my work done than know I was right but still not be able to fill out my TPS reports correctly. Sort of the workplace version of “Would you rather be right, or happy?” — would you rather be right or done? (I also think, from a practical standpoint, that a lot of managers would not be happy to hear “I don’t have that task done because I wasn’t willing to play along with a couple minutes of annoying joking from Fergus so he would give me his information” — sure, it’s annoying, but if as small a concession as saying “Heh, good one, Fergus. For real, though, about those reports…” would solve it, I think it’s reasonable to expect that you’ll make that concession.)

            Reply
            1. Marisol

              yeah, it depends on the severity of the problem. If it’s a minor annoyance that you can endure for a couple of minutes, ignoring it or playing along is a fine strategy–there’s no need to look for trouble. But in this case, where there seems to be a clear power play with more at stake than just a few minutes wasted here and there, then I’d say a case can be made for escalating. Yes, you might waste a lot more time on protracted dialogue in that specific instance, but usually–not always, but usually–when you show a bully that you will stand your ground, he backs down. So the next time, he won’t initiate because you’ve shown him what you’re made of. It’s playground politics at it’s finest.

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              1. Elsajeni

                Yes, that’s true — now that I’ve seen more of the OP’s comments, it’s clear this is more on the “deliberate jerk behavior” end of the scale than the “class clown who’s sure EVERYONE finds him funny” end.

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    4. LBK

      Eh, I honestly don’t think your wording is that much less abrupt or annoyed-sounding. Either way you’re not engaging in the humor and basically telling them to cut the shit.

      I also think that when you start the rudeness, you’re not really entitled to feel affronted if someone responds bluntly. Two wrongs don’t make a right and all that, but people also shouldn’t have to tiptoe around someone’s obnoxious behavior in a work environment where people are trying to get things done. It’s not about being the bigger person, it’s about implicitly reminding people that they’re on the clock.

      Reply
    5. hbc

      If you’re going to be the one who jokes around a lot, you have to have a *much* thicker skin about sarcasm and jokes than your average person. It’s awfully convenient to declare sarcasm that implies your humor is unappreciated is across the line, while whatever you were joking about is all in good fun.

      Reply
    6. Be the Change

      My grandfather, my father, and my brother loved to tease me to the point of screaming frustration. I’d need something and they would pick at me until I stomped away in tears, and then they’d be all “Awwww, we’re sawwy, come on back….” This workplace dynamic sounds like that. I never figured out how to handle it as a 10-year old, but now —

      –My husband likes to tease too. And I say very directly but nicely, “Husband, please do not tease me about this.” Obviously that relationship is different than a work relationship, but when I have class clowns in meetings or something, I handle it similarly: “Dan, for the sake of everyone’s time, could you hold the jokes until the break?”

      Reply
      1. Emi.

        This is a good script, because it doesn’t wade into the weeds of whether their jokes are funny or appropriate.

        Reply
  4. FlibertyG

    This can be hard in a work environment where people already know each other and have a lot of inside jokes and past history. Especially if you’re new to the office. I think it’s a balancing act of waiting it out while respecting their relationship / history (and perhaps some day becoming part of a close knit team? Some people like this, some don’t), and building a new pattern of interaction where … uh, stuff gets done. It’s frustrating and I feel you OP. Especially since it seems like you’re NOT new, I think Alison’s scripts are great.

    Reply
  5. neverjaunty

    LW, the key to this kind of derailing (and humor is a pretty common way to derail conversations) is to refuse to get diverted. You don’t have to be frowny about it – just keep a straight face, pause for a few seconds, and then repeat what you just asked. Sometimes you can deflect pouting about ‘awww we were just funnin’ around’ with prefaces like “Maybe I didn’t phrase that question very well,” or “Okay, but getting back to what I just asked you…”

    Believe me, they know what they’re doing, and they’re deliberately being jerks, which seems pretty clear from the other stuff in your letter. You just need to signal that you’re not going play along, and it’s entirely possible to do that without directly calling them out.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      I would also add that it’s okay to interrupt. You don’t have to wait until the joke lands to redirect. With this history, I would probably let Bob do one joke and then interrupt if Fergus starts to riff–“Hang on just a second, Fergus–so, Bob, about that form?”

      Reply
      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        Yes, this! I was going to say the same. It’s ok not to get derailed, and it’s ok to interrupt to get command of the conversation back. The interruption element is similar to the advice from yesterday’s column about sneaky sales calls masquerading as non-sales calls (but the interaction, here, is ostensibly much shorter).

        It’s ok to take back control of the convo, OP! In meetings, it’s also ok to interrupt during a pause or say, “Returning to what [Coworker] was saying [about relevant, business, meeting-appropriate issue]…” It’s also ok to interrupt and say, “Could we return to the agenda/[issue needing discussion]? I’m really interested/curious about [fill in question or issue].”

        Reply
    2. AnonMarketer

      They actually might not be deliberately being jerks; and I think that’s an unfair assumption to make. Perception and how someone sees themselves acting are usually two very different things. People made comments saying they felt I was a jerk because I’m a super abrupt, sarcastic person, but that wasn’t my intention at all! For me, it’s usually because some of my co-workers a super serious 24/7 and it makes me uncomfortable, so I try to lighten the situation (usually with self-depreciatory humor). I have a HORRIBLE brain to mouth filter—unfortunately it’s just the way I’m wired; I think it’s unfair to assume someone’s a jerk just because they act differently. I think professionally drawing a line in the sand and setting up clear but polite boundaries would honestly help solve this issue.

      Reply
      1. FlibertyG

        Hehe I have a friend like this. She thinks she’s being playful but her jokes land like a stone – especially for people who don’t pick up on her extremely dry sarcasm! In this case, I think the coworkers don’t need to be being jerks for the OP to have the problem and deploy the lines Alison recommended. If they don’t take the redirection with good humor they’ll reveal themselves in time.

        Reply
      2. Jessie the First (or second)

        “I think it’s unfair to assume someone’s a jerk just because they act differently”

        That is not what is happening here. The OP says they go off on long joke tangents, and also that one of them speaks to her in general as if she is stupid. That’s not that the jokers “act differently.” That’s acting like a jerk.

        Reply
        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          That’s true, but I do think there’s virtue in approaching people as if they are not jerks. If nothing else, because it helps conceal body language and facial expressions that signal how annoyed/irritated you are with that person. It’s probably easier to get out of their tornado of bad jokes if OP can maintain an “assuming good intent” tone, even if OP personally believes they’re purposefully being annoying jerks or engaging in jerk behavior.

          Reply
          1. Jessie the First (or second)

            Oh, I agree. I think it’s best to be just direct and straightforward about what she needs, which is true whether they are jerks or not – in that sense it really does not matter. OP needs x,y,z so she can say she needs x,y,z. (I was just pointing out that there is other stuff in the letter beyond the joking that may mean one coworker, at least, is …. difficult…. in response to AnonM’s defense of the jokers – I think OP is feeling frustrated because more is going on that the joking, which makes her feel more frustrated than she might otherwise, and based on her letter that’s a fair thing.)

            Reply
          2. neverjaunty

            The OP certainly shouldn’t let on that she thinks they’re jerks, because it’s just plain more effective to let their crappy behavior slide off in a way they can’t argue with.

            But knowing they’re jerks means the OP can avoid a lot of ineffectual responses, like “maybe they’re just not understanding how they come across so I should be gentle and try to educate them”, or “I could explain how they sound condescending and I’m sure they’ll change their ways.”

            Reply
        2. fposte

          And I don’t think it matters if it’s deliberate or not, because 1) it doesn’t change what the OP should do and 2) that’s not the divisor between being a jerk and not being a jerk. Being insufficiently thoughtful can be enough to make somebody a jerk, after all; it doesn’t require active intent to hurt.

          Reply
      3. Liet-Kynes

        “They actually might not be deliberately being jerks; and I think that’s an unfair assumption to make.”

        Intentional or not, they ARE being jerks, and it’s possible for the best of intentions to fall flat. Intent matters, but effect matters more.

        Reply
      4. neverjaunty

        No, I think it’s perfectly fair to assume that these particular coworkers are jerks, given the LW’s description of their other behavior in addition to constantly derailing conversations and meetings with jokes: “one is extremely bad at the concept of user-friendliness and never provides context for anything, the other often assumes I don’t know things and treats me like I’m stupid when I try to ask for clarification or discuss the pros and cons of something.”

        Reply
    3. Turquoise Cow

      I’ve had this happen in work situations – with a former boss of mine, in fact. I couldn’t really slam him down, and he’d look at me eagerly, hoping I’d find the joke as hilarious as he did (most people didn’t). I’d usually just nod, say “uh huh,” in a dry tone like I was nominally in agreement and found it humorous (which I did, usually, just not as hilarious as he did), and then repeat my question that I’d originally tried to ask.

      This is often my go to response when people try too hard to get me to laugh uproariously at jokes I find only mildly funny or outright stupid, especially if they’re derailing the conversation. “Uh huh.” Nod. “Anyway….”

      Reply
  6. J.B.

    I’ve dealt with not particularly competent people who do the joking to get out of work. And there can also be some one upmanship of each other. If bad communication guy is generally more reasonable on his (?) own it might be worth to talk about the pattern one on one and ask how you can get clearer answers. Also to find out if there is someone who can serve in a mentor-ish role and suggest who else, anyone else you could get feedback from.

    As for the one who treats you as though you know nothing, no joking there. Talk to him directly one on one and address the pattern. It sucks, but it’s them not OP.

    OP isn’t by any chance younger than these other two and female with them being male? Not that it is always the case but it does happen.

    Reply
    1. FlibertyG

      Good point, i wonder if there are opportunities for OP to approach them one on one, and not get into this “playing off each other” dynamic. I have been able to successfully repel a ‘conversation-joiner’ at work (more like conversation derail-er, but he will overhear and invite himself over to weigh in) by saying, “I think Tom and I have this, Brad, thanks though.”

      Reply
  7. LBK

    Honestly, I think you just need to be brusquer. Don’t be afraid to cut them off and just keep talking after they’ve provided the necessary part of their response; I don’t think anyone will view you as rude if you don’t allow them to ramble on a “funny” tangent, since I’d bet you aren’t the only one who finds this annoying and derailing. And if the ramblers themselves seem to react as if you’re being rude for cutting them off, you can say something like “Oh – sorry, did you have something else?” I don’t think most people will follow up a direct question like that with a joke.

    Reply
  8. TootsNYC

    I sometimes think it’s best (kindest, most effective, less divisive, less likely to make people defensive and therefore more likely to get them to listen to you) if you focus on what you want, the positive–and not on what you want to stop, or the negative. What do you want to start? Not what do you want to stop. Also, focus on what you want to do, and not on what you want them to do.

    So, you want to stay on topic. You want to not have your train of thought derailed. You want to be able to get your answer promptly and move on.
    You can absolutely say those things: “Please don’t derail me.” “Could I ask you to stay on topic when I ask you these things? I’m in the groove, and I want to stay there.” “I need to get back to my task; would you help me by just giving me the answer?”

    Don’t focus on “I want you to stop joking” or “I want you to take work or me, seriously.”

    Reply
    1. Emi.

      Ooh, this is a great perspective. It shifts your focus to something that’s (a) more relevant and (b) more likely to be achieved. It also makes it harder for them to make your response to their derail into a derail of its own (Why should we stop? Who says we don’t take you seriously? Why can’t you take a joke? Why should we take you seriously when you’re such a party-pooper? etc etc etc), and it’s probably easier to pull off without sounding annoying.

      Reply
    2. neverjaunty

      The problem with ‘please don’t derail me’ and ‘please stay on topic’ is that now you’ve given them another pathway to be defensive about. The conversation then becomes about how they weren’t derailing and it’s not their fault you couldn’t explain what the topic is, etc.

      Reply
  9. Liet-Kynes

    So, let me preface this by saying that I’m someone who delights in wordplay, one-liners, banter, and the tactical deployment of irony and sarcasm. This is my terrain, as far as humor goes. I don’t do jokes, I don’t do stand-up, but I got deadpan for days. So:

    There’s a fine line between being witty and being the class clown. A lot of people who take great pride in being sarcastic and joking around a lot seem to cross that line like they’re finishing a marathon. Sarcasm, irony, and situational humor can be devastatingly hilarious, but it requires a deft touch with a fine brush. The major part of humor is understanding which jokes not to make, and when not to make them. Yes, people will laugh along, and sometimes if everybody’s got the sillies, it just feeds on itself and gets enormously amusing. But if you’re laying it on with a trowel in every situation, with people not necessarily in a silly mood, it becomes tedious and fatuous with the quickness, particularly if you’re derailing unrelated conversations or inconveniencing someone.

    Also, consider that endless jokes and cracks are often used as a way to devalue someone’s request or stature, as a kind of social dominance cue, and you can understand how it gets people’s backs up. If they feel that you’re treating them and their request as a joke, don’t be surprised if that pisses them off or they don’t join the banter.

    Reply
    1. Red Reader

      Thank you, discussing this comment helped me and my fiancé identify a particularly troublesome bit of baggage clash we’ve been working on for a while. :)

      Reply
    2. OP

      “Also, consider that endless jokes and cracks are often used as a way to devalue someone’s request or stature, as a kind of social dominance cue, and you can understand how it gets people’s backs up. If they feel that you’re treating them and their request as a joke, don’t be surprised if that pisses them off or they don’t join the banter.”

      I’m the only woman in my team. One of the co-workers has used my lack of understanding after he communicated poorly as an opening to insult me. I think the other one is lacking in social skills and doesn’t get what’s appropriate or not, but one of them definitely seems to have this intention.

      Reply
      1. Liet-Kynes

        This puts me in mind of a great quote by John Scalzi: “The failure mode of clever is ‘asshole.’”

        Reply
    3. Marisol

      “Also, consider that endless jokes and cracks are often used as a way to devalue someone’s request or stature, as a kind of social dominance cue, and you can understand how it gets people’s backs up. ”

      This is my read on this situation, and I am surprised and disappointed that so far I have not seen anyone besides me mention sexism. Honestly I was expecting the comments to blow up on the subject, so I didn’t bother to explore it thoroughly. This joking/derailing is a way men dominate and devalue women!!! Especially in the workplace!! Let’s call it out already!! I see lots of comments giving these jokey coworkers too much benefit of doubt, and suggesting strategies that to my mind, are just coddling the offenders.

      It’s bad behavior, people!!

      Reply
      1. FlibertyG

        I admit that having read OP’s later comments I think I’d revise my prior posts that assumed better intentions on the part of the coworkers. OP says these coworkers are mean spirited so I don’t think there’s much value in trying to preserve the relationship here, if they’re determined to undermine her. Perhaps it’s best to proceed directly to frosty disdain!

        Reply
      2. Clairels

        I normally try to avoid jumping to “sexism” as the default culprit for every problem, because it rarely is. But in this case, I sensed immediately that the OP was female and the coworkers were male, simply because I’ve experienced this dynamic myself a number of times. Men have a unique way of riffing off each other that women often don’t or can’t participate in, even if they try. And even if you’re a good sport and laugh along, it’s amazing how fast it can start to feel exclusionary. And I’m not saying the men are even consciously trying to exclude, but that’s what happens.

        Reply
      3. Ask a Manager Post author

        I ask people not to speculate on gender of posters because people often get it wrong and it can be derailing. In this case, the OP did weigh in with the genders, which has now been factored into the discussion. But there was a time here where “I bet this is a man/woman” was ending up on half the threads and it was exhausting and derailing from practical advice, so I asked a while back for it to stop.

        Reply
        1. Clairels

          Yep, that’s why I try not to speculate, but in this case, I had already seen the OP’s update where she acknowledges the genders of those involved.

          Reply
  10. if/then > yes/and

    what line of work are you in? obviously we don’t need brain surgeons or social workers dicking around on the job, but if it’s just some office job/corporate nonsense (no judgment–i’m right there too), then i 100% support the low-key slowing of the wheels of capital like incessant joking around accomplishes.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      Can you expand on this? I think it’s one thing to stage your own slowdown and another thing to screw with non-consenting co-workers’ jobs, but it sounds like you’re seeing the latter as just a necessary sacrifice.

      Reply
      1. if/then > yes/and

        i’m not sure i would construe being annoyed as a “sacrifice”, but yes, i understand where you are coming from. ideally i’d be trying to encourage my co-workers over to my way of thinking, but you can’t win everybody, and i wouldn’t lose any sleep over someone being irked at me.

        Reply
        1. Liet-Kynes

          If you present in much the same way in real life as you’re representing yourself in this thread, my guess is almost everyone is.

          Reply
    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      But if this is actively annoying OP and other coworkers, then why should they have to put up with “low-key slowing of the wheels of capital” from the jokesters?

      Reply
    3. LBK

      Yikes. A lot of us depend on the “wheels of capitalism” to pay us salaries so we can live. While it would be great if we could eliminate all unnecessary professions and just give everyone else basic income, that’s not how the world works.

      Reply
      1. if/then > yes/and

        the world works the way it does because we allow it to. i’m generally a pretty cynical, flippant person, but i genuinely hope that one day you tap into a political imagination that gives you the hope to work and expectantly wait for a better, more equitable world instead of simply enduring the crappy one we’ve been gifted.

        Reply
        1. Liet-Kynes

          We all hope for such a world, but in the meantime, we all have to work in this world, and if somebody makes my work life in this world a pain in the ass because they’re cutting up for minutes on end while I’m on deadline, that doesn’t get us closer to a UBI or a fair and equitable world for all.

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        2. LBK

          Wow, that’s quite a lot of suppositions about someone you don’t know at all.

          This is getting way off topic so I’ll leave it here, but suffice to say I don’t see how being intentionally bad at my job relates to any of that other than possibly jeopardizing the stability that allows me to spend my free time fighting for causes I believe, because I don’t have to worry about spending that time putting food in my mouth and a roof over my head. I have to be able to survive in the way the world is now if I want to change it.

          Reply
            1. OP

              I work in a privately owned company that makes a product I care about and enjoy, but that isn’t directly saving the world. I worked in non-profits before going into tech. I quit because I realized that all workplaces have problems and there are none that are immune to the pressures of capitalism. No, not brain surgeons, and not organizations that help people at the bottom of the capitalist system either.

              I don’t think a bunch of programmers are intentionally slowing down the capitalist machine with their jokes. They’re most likely being thoughtless, but if they have any agenda it’s most likely making the only woman on their team feel less welcome. If you think this is me being paranoid or overly sensitive, know that this has happened at every tech workplace and nearly every class or educational environment I’ve been in, in some for–it’s less overt here than the times I’ve been sexually harassed in a “joking” manner, which is why I’m looking for different advice to deal with it.

              Capitalism has its problems for sure, but highly paid white-collar men obstructing the women in their workplaces doesn’t seem to solve any of them.

              Reply
              1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

                OP, I say this with complete sincerity—your response is breathtaking. Thank you :)

                Reply
              2. Sylvia

                highly paid white-collar men obstructing the women in their workplaces doesn’t seem to solve any of them.

                Great response.

                Reply
        3. Super Anon for This

          Your posts make it sound like you are privileged enough that you either don’t need to work for a living or have bosses who are completely checked out and don’t care if you don’t do your job. Not everyone is that lucky. Some of us have, deadlines and oversight, and telling your boss the report due today won’t be done for another hour because you were joking around with everyone and not working will get you fired. And some of us would be homeless if we were fired so that’s not really an option.

          Reply
    4. Jessie the First (or second)

      Except that this does not accomplish any kind of grand statement against corporate america – it merely makes the job of your coworker harder. If she has a deadline or a million things her boss demands that she finishes up, then you are punishing her, not “the wheels of capital” when you decide to joke around forever instead of answering a coworker’s question. She’s the one who won’t meet a deadline, or who will have to stay late to finish something, or who will get a bad mark on a performance review. Not the philosophical idea of the corporate machine – an actual person.

      Reply
      1. fposte

        And if anything, you’re even more of a tool of capitalism because you’re using your energy against a fellow worker; it’s anti-solidarity.

        Reply
        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          Agreed. Maybe if/then is spinning out a line that the coworkers embrace to justify their jerky behavior. That said, I find the idea that being individually obnoxious in the workplace (and who knows whether it’s part of the apparatus of capitalism) will somehow destroy capitalism or result in material benefits. It sounds like it primarily gives a lone-wolf an excuse to behave badly—and to do it under the guise of being “subversive”—without engaging in meaningful advocacy or systems-change.

          Reply
          1. fposte

            And it’s transferring all the risk to somebody else, which is not usually the choice of your ethical revolutionary.

            Reply
      2. Turquoise Cow

        Yeah, it’s kind of like getting mad at the cashier about how awful the store she works in is, or how much you’ve been screwed over by their policies. Derailing your coworker and preventing them from doing required work sends no message whatsoever to the corporation you work for, it just makes it harder for the coworker to do his/her job. If you get enough of a reputation as such a person, you’ll eventually not have a job, and then the wheels of capitalism will spin on without you.

        It’s quite easy to complain about the system as a whole, but this is neither rebellion nor useful, it’s just making a single few people’s lives more difficult. The wheels of capitalism will spin on if fergus doesn’t get his report done because of you, but they may go on without you, and you probably made a few enemies along the way.

        Reply
        1. Super Anon for This

          Oh yeah! As a sales associate I used to get customers complaining to me and scolding me for the store’s policies. This was a nationally known big box store, and I always reminded them, we don’t set the policies, corporate does. And I told them to contact corporate if they didn’t like it. None of them did though, because it is easier to yell at the cashier right in front of you than to take 15 minutes out of your day to email or mail or call corporate.

          Reply
    5. Business Cat

      What a bizarre way to respond to a perfectly reasonable ask by the OP. Notice how Alison didn’t suggest that the OP ought to go to their Manager/HR and shut her coworkers down because Jokes Are Terrible and Everyone Hates Them. It’s reasonable to expect others to respect OP’s boundaries, boundaries which are, in this case, “I would like to have an answer to work questions in a timely manner because that is a priority for me” and “hey, being spoken to like a competent adult is a thing.” Everyone has a different approach to working and how they decide to use their time at the office, but if you are actively keeping a coworker from performing their preferred method of doing The Job, then you are being an ass.

      Reply
    6. Maya Elena

      “I hate capitalism, so I sabotage the work of others”.
      Say also, “I don’t tip because I’m against the tipping culture.”

      Reply
  11. Merida May

    I have cousins that are like this. It’s tough to interact with people who make every conversation about them trying to be funny/clever, and it must be even harder to have them as co-workers! When I’ve been in meetings that are running over because of side conversations or people going off on tangents sometimes I will recap my questions while I am gathering my thing and walking towards the door. Physically getting up and signaling ‘I have to go now’ or ‘Let’s wrap this up’ could be enough of a change to the pace to get you quick answers. I also feel like it’s a little easier to be more direct in a kind of “So was that a yes or no to proceeding the software? I didn’t catch the answer and I need to know” way when you are on your way out.

    Reply
  12. Decima Dewey

    I think it’s a good general rule, if you end up telling a coworker “lighten up”, you’ve gone too far with the joke.

    Reply
  13. Marisol

    Here’s what I personally would do, which is a harsher approach than what Allison suggests and which therefore may or may not be the right one for you, OP.

    I don’t place all that much importance on people in the office finding me fun or approving of my sense of humor. I feel confident that I am actually a fun person with a good sense of humor, and that that will come through regardless of whether or not I choose to be serious about a work deliverable at any given time. And it’s more important to be pleasant in the workplace than it is to be jovial anyway. So I just wouldn’t give two hoots about whether or not I was the mirth-stomper in the office. My attitude would be, “yes, I’m the mirth-stomper…a mirth-stomper who gets things done.” Also, I could be wrong, but I’m getting the impression that your coworkers are being passive-aggressive and possibly sexist or otherwise condescending by not taking your questions and requests seriously (especially that person who assumes you don’t know anything?? WTF?) So if I am reading the situation accurately, there’s some aggression there that needs to be shut down hard.

    Specifically I’d mention the consequence of not getting a timely answer:

    OP: Do you have the specs for the teapot spout?

    Jokester: [starts singing] “I’m a little teapot! short and stout! Here is my handle…!”

    OP: [ignoring cutesy stuff and speaking calmly] “The reason I need the specs is because we have a 5 pm deadline. If you don’t know the answer, tell me and I’ll ask someone else.”

    Jokester: “Err, right, here are the specs…”

    So that would probably be my approach. Yes, in that moment the jokester might think I was no fun. And he’d be absolutely right. Sometimes I am no fun. Sometimes, you could even say…I’m a bitch!! I don’t care. Business is business, it’s not my job to be entertaining, and anyone who has a problem with that, too bad for them. You’re not in the people-pleasing business.

    As for the zero-tolerance approach, I’d say if you get a reputation for being humorless with the jokesters, then perhaps they’ll learn not to waste your time with stupid jokes, and that would be a good thing, even if it costs you some goodwill.

    Now how wise this approach is depends on your standing in the company, the company culture, and how your rapport is with coworkers overall. If you are in a position politically where you can’t make waves, where you need to kiss a little butt…then you’ll need a softer approach. However, if you have job security, are a high performer, and are generally well-regarded, then I don’t think you are obligated to put up with anyone’s nonsense and you can Shut. It. Down. Other “shut it down” phrases include, “cute, but can you answer my question?” and “I’m trying to get something done here.”

    Reply
    1. LBK

      Yeah, I’m pretty on board with this approach. I think if it’s clear to others that you only have a harsher approach with especially annoying jokesters then that will balance out the possible perception of you being a buzzkill. You might piss off those specific people you’re shutting down but I don’t think that’s such a loss unless it ultimately makes it even harder to get work out of them.

      Reply
      1. Statler von Waldorf

        In my experience, any time you piss of specific people, it will make it harder to get work out of them. That’s just human nature.

        Reply
        1. neverjaunty

          You understand that goes both ways? These twits are pissing off the OP and making it harder for many people to get their work done. Yet you’re expending a lot of effort lecturing the OP to shut up and suck it up. Why?

          Reply
          1. Statler von Waldorf

            I have never told the OP to shut down or to suck it up. Please don’t put words in my mouth.

            Reply
          2. Ask a Manager Post author

            Whoa, wait, that’s really not accurate at all. I just read all of Statler’s comments here and she doesn’t say that at all. It’s also a pretty aggressive way to talk to a fellow commenter, so I ask that you not do that Thank you!

            Reply
        2. LBK

          I think it’s a balancing act; if you piss them off by pushing them to stop doing something that’s already making it hard to get work out of them, it might still be a net gain.

          Reply
    2. Liet-Kynes

      “OP: [ignoring cutesy stuff and speaking calmly] “The reason I need the specs is because we have a 5 pm deadline. If you don’t know the answer, tell me and I’ll ask someone else.””

      I think if delivered calmly and levelly, this is entirely appropriate and I don’t think it’s snarky or harsh at all.

      Reply
      1. TootsNYC

        Or, if no deadline, just say, “I need to stay on track here–sorry to not be able to joke right now. Should I ask someone else, or can you answer?”

        And I think it might be worth the OP figuring out a phrase like this that’s:
        -general enough to apply in any situation, even if it’s just that she doesn’t have patience right now;
        -neutral or “me” focused: “I need to stay in the groove”

        And use it every time, word for word.

        Reply
        1. OP

          This is good advice, thanks. We don’t have many strict deadlines on a day-to-day basis, so something general would be better than talking about deadlines.

          Reply
    3. Business Cat

      So much agreement to this. I am super cool and super funny, and I don’t have to waste other people’s time at my job to prove it to anyone.

      Reply
    4. Statler von Waldorf

      I’m thinking you are underestimating how much political capital and goodwill that hard-line approach can cost you. I agree that this will vary incredibly depending on company culture. I’ve worked places where you would probably get applauded for taking a hard line approach. I’ve also worked places where the same hard-line approach would kill your entire career track in that company in less than ten seconds.

      I’d recommend starting with the softer approach, and only escalating if it fails to work. I don’t see the need to burn future bridges unless there’s no other way to solve a problem. And yes, if you are going full zero-tolerance, you are probably burning future bridges.

      Reply
      1. neverjaunty

        I’m baffled at the idea that being calm and straightforward is “burning bridges”. If the OP’s co-workers are such delicate bro-flakes that she has to gently coddle their feelings, suck up their insults, and smile along with their jokes just to get an answer to a simple question or have a productive meeting, then there is no bridge in the first place.

        Reply
        1. Statler von Waldorf

          I have in the past been required to “gently coddle their feelings, suck up their insults, and smile along with their jokes” to maintain my employment when the jokers where my boss. Going full “mirth-stomper” would have gotten me fired. That job led me to bigger and better things, so yes, you can burn a bridge by being a killjoy.

          Reply
          1. Marisol

            I did specifically give the caveat that this approach depends on your standing in the company, company culture, rapport with coworkers, and specifically mentioned political butt-kissing. I think I covered all the bases.

            Reply
          2. neverjaunty

            The OP is asking about dealing with co-workers whose clowning and condescending is interfering with her work (and others’ work, it seems). She’s not asking about tolerating a bad boss long enough to find another job. The thing about bridges between peers is that they go in both directions.

            And how odd to call someone a “killjoy” in this situation. Did I overlook something in the OP’s letter where she said jokes have no place in the office?

            Reply
            1. FlibertyG

              I take the point that this can be very office dependent. I don’t think Statler von Waldorf is wrong in saying that in some office cultures, humor can go to “fit” which we discussed in a past post. I think it helps OP to consider the context of her office. In some places these jokers would be the ones out of line with “fit” and OP would be rewarded for brusquely shutting them down. In others, it may not be as likely.

              Reply
              1. Mookie

                The OP’s been up front that this is a gendered issue she’s experienced across the board in this particular technical field. ‘Fit’ is correctly deduced to sometimes mean ‘our kind,’ and patterns of jokes like this are one such method, intentional or no, for keeping a field free from others of a different ‘kind.’

                Reply
            2. Statler von Waldorf

              Here’s the issue, at least as I have experienced it in the past. Someone above the two clowns probably thinks that they are funny. Jokers are far easier to deal with (and thus funnier) when you are not relying on them to get your own work done and can shut them down if they go too far. If it’s the head honcho who thinks they’re hilarious, you could end up in a bad situation because suddenly you’re “not a team player,” and don’t know why. It’s the higher-up supporters of those jokers whose bridges you can burn without knowing it, which is why I was arguing that one should be cautious as their first approach.

              One piece of advice I forgot to give what to check to see who’s laughing at the jokes. If no one is, everything I’ve said is irrelevant and I’d back Marisol’s advice 100%. Her comment was excellent, I just thought the part about political butt-kissing needed more than a sentence as a disclaimer. Office politics can be brutal, tricky, and tend to vary incredibly from one company to another. Always remember the toes you step on today can be connected to the ass you must kiss tomorrow.

              As for the word killjoy, I was using it as a synonym for the phrase “mirth-stomper” which Marisol used to describe herself in her own comment. That appears to have been a bad idea, it was definitely not directed at the OP, and I will refrain from using it in the future.

              Reply
              1. Marisol

                Yeah, you definitely don’t want to skewer the boss’s favorite golden-boy-who-can-do-no-wrong. I think what you’re describing is more of an outlier situation, but it’s worth taking into consideration.

                Reply
          3. Liet-Kynes

            Read over the original post, and OP’s comments in this thread, and tell me where there’s any joy in this situation to be killed.

            Reply
          4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

            I dunno, I think it’s fair to note that your positional authority in a company, cultural norms, etc., may impact whether you can successfully deploy Marisol’s advice.

            I think Marisol covered all potential disclaimers, and I like her suggestions. But I also think it’s ok for Statler to reiterate her caveat, which was that the approach depends on your standing in your company.

            Reply
  14. Liz2

    I’ve been around geek/nerd groups like this a lot- it’s a status process for them. The one who can snark/quote/riff the most is the best. It gets very tiring to anyone outside the loop.

    Here’s my trick for all meetings- every meeting should have an agenda. Every agenda should have discussion topics. Every discussion topic should have a presenter/leader and a time limit. So if you give 10 minutes for Toaster Colors and you’re on minute 4 without getting to the meat of the topic, it’s time for the meeting leader to say “OK guys we only have a few minutes left, let’s get to this specifically” or “We really need to focus and not riff so much today.”

    This solves the issue of making the meetings productive and if that’s the only interaction you have with them, then you’re set. Beyond that, it’s more a coaching issue.

    Reply
  15. Beth

    I have the same issue! Except the two jokey coworkers are the two owners of the company so there’s not much that can be done :-/

    I’ve tried similar scripts to what Alison provided and they sort-of work, but they’ve also gotten me labeled as someone who doesn’t like jokes/humor. I do like jokes, just… I don’t want to sit in a meeting room for 20 minutes doing nothing productive while my bosses have a comedy session or whatever.

    Reply
    1. LCL

      It’s great to get that label, though. Because then when you say something clever, people really pay attention to your humor. I specialized for awhile in pop culture references that I didn’t think were obscure, but were dated, and nobody got them. Once I explained the references, people were amazed and amused.

      Reply
    2. Marisol

      does that label really hurt you though? If it has consequences like, you’re not included in meetings and you miss out on important information and wouldn’t be promoted because the boss will only work closely with someone who likes his humor, then that’s a cost you have to weigh. If, however, you just have a label, and it feels icky because no one likes labels, but that’s it, then that’s a very minor problem in the scheme of things.

      Having said that, since the jokers are your bosses, it might be worth meeting them at their level. Historically, women have taken meetings at face value, seeing them as a chance to make decisions and otherwise be productive. Men, however, see meetings as a chance to establish dominance and place less importance on actual productivity. If you shift your expectation of a meeting, and focus on the underlying agenda, maybe you can see a way to make the annoying jokey meetings benefit you. Does it really take up so much time to placate the bosses’ egos and laugh at their jokes? If not, then you might want to go ahead and do that. There’s a book I read this in but I can’t remember the title…one of those “how women can succeed in the workplace” books…argh I’ll try to remember it.

      Reply
  16. Statler von Waldorf

    Now I’m wondering if some of my previous co-workers wrote this letter, and Alison is just a few years late in answering it. I’ve absolutely been one of those guys and played the class clown many times before. Actually the thing I like least about management is that I had to give that role up, heavy sarcasm just doesn’t fly when you have authority over the people you’re joking with. These days it’s just the occasional one-liner when it’s just too funny to pass up.

    That said, the responses so far are very interesting and eye opening. I might have to reconsider my stance on this for the future.

    Reply
    1. Liet-Kynes

      If it makes you feel better, dropping the occasional one-liner at a choice moment amplifies the effect. Bombs do more damage than machine guns, feel me?

      Reply
  17. Business Cat

    Yeah, I think it’s probably best-practice to be direct about the fact that this is a problem before your frustration starts coming out in passive ways because you feel like you can’t speak up. You deserve to have necessary information conveyed to you in an efficient way and if they bristle about that, tell you thT you are too sensitive or can’t take a joke, that speaks volumes more about them than it does about you. “Yep, that’s me. Big ol’ stick in the mud. Now about those TPS reports…”

    With the condescending comments, their expected response is either A) you defer to their superior opinion/expertise, or B) engage in a battle of egos (I’m imagining a tennis with one of you on either side lobbing “Well, actually!” back and forth as finitum). Fortunately, those aren’t your only options. Drop the polite norms you would normally feel obligated to offer a coworker. Interrupt them. Derail tangential arguments directly and succinctly. Take any useful information you may have gleaned from the conversation and use that to proceed with your task. Or if you’re not getting anything useful, curtail the misdirection, “Well, that’s an interesting perspective, but what I actually need to know is _______.”

    It will feel more comfortable the more often you do it, and I say this as a person who struggled mightily with being assertive and confident in the face of other people’s rudeness. Stay cool, be direct, and set appropriate boundaries and expectations. You are being the professional here.

    Reply
  18. Courtney W

    OP, I wonder how much you really need their opinion on these matters. Is it commonly done in your place of business to ask each other’s opinions on the pros and cons of X versus Y? I ask mainly because it sounds like it might just be easier to decide which choice is preferable without their input, but also because you mention that one of these co-workers treats you like you’re stupid when you want extra clarification or to discuss pros and cons. That had me wondering if maybe the culture of your workplace is one where people are expected to figure this stuff out without their coworker’s help.

    I hope that doesn’t come across like I’m saying you’re wrong for asking for their advice or opinions! But cutting down on how often you do so, if that’s feasible, could reduce the amount of time you spend employing strategies to get them to just answer the question.

    Reply
  19. Liet-Kynes

    This whole thread puts me in mind of a quote by John Scalzi: “The failure mode of clever is ‘asshole.’”

    Reply
    1. LCL

      I remember years ago in my state a teen shot and killed another teen and a teacher. All of the mourners that would talk to the press said of the slain teen that he was so funny, always kidding around and such a joker. Sometimes the people on the receiving end of class clown type humor don’t think it’s funny, sometimes they are devastated and react badly. This column has even had a few letters about humor run amok; see the letter about dipstick/bobblehead and the one about the guy who locked someone out on a balcony.

      Reply
  20. Beancounter Eric

    Actually, a joke or two is too many.

    I come to work to work, not to play, and I really, really do not appreciate my time being wasted by “jokers” and their feeble attempts at humor. Don’t call it “breaking the ice”, “lightening the mood”, etc. – it ultimately is “look at me, Look At Me, LOOK AT ME!!!”

    In an ideal world, these twits would be terminated after one warning.

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I think that’s a really outlier view. There’s lots of evidence that humor can build relationships; it’s not inherently bad. It’s a problem in this particular case because these coworkers are taking it too far; it’s not a problem in general.

      Reply
  21. Noah

    IMO, at work there is nothing wrong with being a stick in the mud. Phooey on people who demand their coworkers be fun.

    Reply
  22. Nolan

    Wow, are you me?! I’ve been dealing with this a lot lately, and finally just told my two biggest offenders that I no longer have the mental capacity to deal with humor about work questions so they shouldn’t use it on me. That was my response to yet another snarky comment that basically answered my question but didn’t need the snark.
    One of them is also completely terrible at communicating, they recently renamed a vendor because they couldn’t be bothered to remember his name, then expected me to know who they were talking about when they asked a question about him totally out of the blue. That one also has a crap attitude about any vendor who want to do anything outside the normal parameters, and tries to shut down requests without actually looking into them.
    I’ve just stopped responding to jokes altogether, or when they don’t make any sense to me i just say “what?” Then once it’s clear that it was a joke and not an answer I ask my question again.
    It’s extremely frustrating because we have a lot of external forces making our jobs more difficult, and I’d like us to all be on the same team, but all our conversations get snarky immediately and I just want them to focus on solutions instead of rambling uselessly for 5 min that they don’t like someone because they’re slow at email. At this point all I’ve got the energy to do is make it clear I don’t want jokes, and daydream about my surprise resignation in a few weeks.

    Reply
  23. gwal

    I find that a lot of times answers/scripts hinge on a phrase about time-sensitivity (“I’ve only got a couple minutes,” or “I’m on a deadline”, etc.) But what kind of script would you suggest in an office where there is no plausible deadline issue at play, yet someone still would prefer not to be subject to such juvenile antics? I also wouldn’t want to have to fib to deal with a situation that was bothering me…polite refusals to engage are hard!

    Reply
    1. Marisol

      look at the person with a totally neutral expression (i.e. not annoyance or disapproval, no confrontation, no scrutiny, just…blank) and say nothing whatsoever. look as if you are simply waiting for the other person to finish their sentence and are listening politely, even if they are finished talking. the other person will feel extremely uncomfortable and will cut to the chase and give you exactly what you want (an answer, some sort of acquiescence, etc.)

      I hope to have a minute later today to expand on this explanation in a separate comment, but trust me, that technique is gold. no script required. practice in a mirror or with a friend to make sure you have a blank face though, no furrowed brow is allowed.

      Reply
  24. Lissa

    Ugh. I have dealt with people like this, of the specific variant “Movie/TV/Pop Culture Quoter and Referencer.” I don’t have as much familiarity with some pop culture things as others do, and this has been used in ways that make me feel so small/insignificant/whatever.

    I *love* one liners and funny comments, even at work, but the point of a one liner is that it’s ONE LINE. And also should not be done in response to an actual work query! It sounds like these people are using humour to exclude, not to make everybody’s day brighter.

    Reply
  25. LNZ

    ug, I had coworkers like that at my last job. Whenever i would ask a question they would always reply with sarcasm. It got old very fast.

    Reply
  26. Stephanie the Great

    My boss, who is a senior leader at my company, does this to me (I’m his business manager). I’m a straight-shooter at work. When I’m working, my focus is on work and what needs to be done and getting it done. It isn’t on having fun or making jokes. While I’m not against fun in the workplace, it’s really annoying when it gets in the way of the actual purpose of work — to WORK. Normally my response is to stare at him and wait for him to finish whatever joke he is making, no reaction just a blank look on my face. And when he finally laughs and says, “What?” because I’m not responding, I say, “You didn’t answer my question.” If he starts teasing me about not being fun, I say, “It’s not about not being fun, it’s about I need you to answer this question so I can do this task that you assigned to me, can you please answer my question?” At that point he gets serious about 95% of the time.

    I think you could do something similar to this — don’t react, reiterate that they haven’t answered your question, and if they keep pressing, say, “I need an answer to this question because of a task Big Boss assigned to me/us, will you please answer me?” If they go beyond this, I’d probably say, “If it’s a problem for you to give me an answer right now, let me know so I can ask Big Boss for a different resource so I can complete the task.” If they are so completely socially inept to accuse you of tattling (because what you’ve written here does not inspire confidence in their capabilities to act as mature adults), say – once again – “It isn’t about tattling. It’s about the fact I have a job to do, I need your assistance with it, and if you’re unable to provide that assistance, I need to let the person who gave me the job to do know that I need a different source of information in order to complete the task.”

    And if they think you’re a wet rag after this, well… they don’t sound exactly like the type of people whose opinions of me would really bowl me over one way or another.

    Reply
  27. Hannah

    In college, I volunteered with an arts group and had a team leader about a year younger than me who did this. One day I was just trying to get an answer to a simple question at the end of a very long, stressful day, and the answer would have a huge impact on how stressful the following day was. He joked around with me about it twice, never giving me an actual answer. I then surprised us both by bursting into frustrated tears and sobbing, “I just need to know if X is happening tomorrow.” He quickly answered my question, and he always promptly answered all my questions from that point forward. I certainly don’t recommend this tactic – I was horribly embarrassed by it and would have been even more so in a more formal setting – but it did the trick, and the story has since become a favorite of mine.

    Reply
  28. consultant

    I was in a similar situation. It was, as in your case, when I worked with IT people, mostly men.

    The meetings I was expected to lead were completely derailed because two guys would make jokes between themselves or exchange pieces of papers with, I suppose, comments about me (they read them and laughed looking at me).

    To make it worse, one of the guys was significantly above me in the company hierarchy and could give me a lot of trouble if he wanted.

    I talked to him after one of the meetings. I told him it was incredibly difficult for me to lead meetings when they behaved like this. Plus, when they were, I would stop presenting and just wait for them to finish. Other participants saw it. Sometimes I asked if everything was ok and we could continue or how much more time they needed.

    I would take a similar approach in OP’s case. And yes, I think it’s about being a woman in a male profession.

    Reply
    1. consultant

      Another solution would be to try to “play along” and expose the game.

      I.e. they make a joke or a sarcastic comment, you continue with an even more sarcastic comment, which you make with a face expression and voice of a dumbass to make them realize these comments are out of place. It could work.

      But well, I’m a sarcastic person myself, so it wouldn’t be difficult for me, not sure how other people would feel about a similar strategy.

      Reply

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