how do you deal with professional insults followed by with “I’m just kidding”?

A reader writes:

Fortunately this isn’t a problem I’m dealing with anymore. The offending party left my company. However, the tactic they used still bothers me, and I was wondering if you had any advice about it. The problem coworker was a manager in another department. I count my lucky stars that I didn’t report to them, as I would likely have quit.

This manager had unreasonable expectations regarding timelines and priorities. Any time they needed something from my department, it was matter-of-course that their issue should be our top priority. It often wasn’t. We were juggling tons of obligations. When unhappy with our responsiveness, they’d insult our department, or us, in a way that was really difficult to address in the moment.

For example, say I worked in accounting and they needed an invoice processed. If I’d contacted them to tell them it would be finished on X day (even though I knew they wanted it by close of business), they’d respond back with something like: “That’s okay, I don’t expect quick turnaround because you’re not a real accounting department. Haha, just kidding.” And then they’d immediately change the subject.

They’d smile and say “just kidding” in a jokey/upbeat tone, and immediately move on before the insult could sink in. I know they were doing it so they could land the insult without suffering blowback or consequences. It was obvious to anyone in earshot, but they’d breeze right past it without slowing down, and toss in some variant of “just kidding” or “you know I’m joking, you guys are great.”

As a result, you’d come off as weirdly petty or sensitive if you tried to address it. They’d already be on another topic, already “non-poligized” for their remark, and responding would get awkward too. What would you say?
• “We are a real accounting department.” (Defensive.)
• “Well, I don’t think it was funny.” (Defensive and petty?)
• “Real accounting departments have many priorities.” (Eeeh?)

The employee eventually left my company, but I’ve never thought of a good response and it’s bothered me. Is there a clever or even handed way to say “that was insulting” when the offender is trying to so deftly bypass exactly that response?

Oh, that’s so obnoxious!

Why do people do this? It’s like they know they’re being jerky but think the “I’m kidding” will somehow absolve them.

If your coworker had a genuine problem with an answer you gave, they should have explained that and had a real conversation about it — not hid behind snarky digs with “just kidding” deniability.

Sometimes the best option for responding to this sort of thing, especially when the other person is senior to you (and thus “dude, cut it out” might not be an option) is to insist on taking it seriously. For example:

You: “We won’t be able to get to this today, but I’ll have it for you by Friday.”
Coworker: “That’s okay, I don’t expect quick turnaround because you’re not a real accounting department. Haha, just kidding. Hey, look at that bird outside!”
You: “Whoa, that doesn’t sound like a joke. What do you mean by that?”
Coworker: “I’m just joking, you guys are great.”
You: “You’ve made a lot of remarks like that, so it doesn’t sound like a joke to me. Do you have a concern about how quickly we’re doing the work you send us?”
Coworker: “Haha, no, I’m just joking around.”
You: “It doesn’t seem like a joke when you say it repeatedly, so if there’s a problem, please definitely let me know.”

If you do this every time, it’ll make these encounters so tedious for your coworker that there’s a decent chance they’ll stop (or even realize how obnoxious they’re being).

But if you do this a few times and it’s still happening, then you can escalate to this:

You: “This invoice is a little trickier, so we’re going to need an extra day to process it.”
Coworker: “That’s okay. I should have known you wouldn’t know how to handle it. Just kidding! Did you see Paul’s shirt today?”
You: “You know, you keep saying things that sound like you have serious concerns about our work. Should we set up a meeting to sit down and figure out what’s going on?”
Coworker: “No, no, I’m just joking. Ha ha!”
You: “You make those jokes so often that I don’t feel comfortable ignoring them. At this point, it sounds like a real concern, not a joke.”

And then if necessary: “If they’re truly jokes, could you stop making them? It obviously raises concerns on our side, and it could cause real problems for us if someone else overheard and took it seriously.”

In other words, be incredibly un-fun about this. Have no sense of humor — not that these “jokes” are funny, obviously, but this person is counting on you to feel pressured to play along, so don’t.

If this doesn’t work, you can fully write them off as an asshole, but this is worth a shot first.

{ 261 comments… read them below }

  1. whistle*

    I actually love the phrasing OP uses in their question at the end!

    “That was insulting.” Calm even tone of voice. And then just move on. Say it each time person the person makes a “joke”.

    1. Jen S. 2.0*

      Right. Stone-faced, “That wasn’t funny. I don’t appreciate it.”

      Not having a sense of humor about unfunny or insulting or malicious things is not a problem or to be avoided. Sense of humor about being insulted is not a boon. You don’t have to laugh or agree just because someone says the insult was a joke.

      It’s also not petty to address a pattern of behavior, even if calling out one instance might be. That’s why you might let the first time go, but you might comment on the 3rd or 4th one.

      1. NotKidding*

        OP Here, and while I generally agree with the sentiment I found it really challenging in the moment. The offender was a deft conversationalist, so it was pretty tough to get a properly timed response in (of any kind).

        I really like Allison’s advice however. Taking it super seriously like it’s an actual process problem (rather than the insult it’s intended to be) effectively diffuses the tactic without coming across as defensive or petty. It’s a clever way to turn the comment right back around.

        1. Micklak*

          I remember being is school and having conversations whisk by me. They always went too fast for me to interject. I finally learned to say “I want to respond to something that was said earlier.” It was a little awkward but allowed me to have my say.

          1. GreenDoor*

            Yes! He’s not the one that gets to dictate when the conversation ends. And there is something so deliciously empowering about the “let’s go back to that comment from earlier.” Plus the added advantage of having taking a moment – that he wasn’t expecting you to take – to gather your thoughts and really lay it out there. The room will feel akward…but it’ll be directed at him and you can be sure others around will be silently thinking of you as their hero.

            1. NotKidding*

              That’s a really good phrase! I’ll have to keep that one in mind not just for these kinds of jabs, but in general for when the flow of conversation completely escapes me.

        2. animaniactoo*

          For other times, where you need to back up to the point that just blew by you can do it by calling out their tactic:

          “Wait, wait. Back up! You can’t just drop that and move on. I know you said you were just kidding, but you realize that even as a joke, that’s pretty insulting, right?”

          “Whoa, back up! I’m not okay with that joke bomb you just dropped. Don’t say stuff like that if you don’t mean it.”

          1. Maria Lopez*

            Or when he says, “you’re not a real accounting department” you can say, “well that explains it. I’ve heard that you’re not a real acquisitions manager. Just kidding.”

            1. AnonForThisOne*

              “Then it is a good thing we are not supporting a real ____ department, is it not?”

              Think Henry Standing Bear from Longmire ….. calm, deadpan, move on.

        3. Another Millenial*

          I’ve found success when cutting them off right after “Just kidding!” with “No you’re not.” And then change the subject for them.

          1. Jane Austin Texas*

            ^was just coming to say exactly this. A quick “No, you’re not” stops that behavior cold.

        4. Hello Liz*

          I’ve used this line a couple of times with people like that: “In my experience, people who make comments like that followed by ‘just kidding’ want to insult others but don’t want to accept the consequences of their actions.” Delivered in a dead serious voice. It worked!

      2. M*

        I left a job over this behavior- we had a VP point blank tell us and other people in the company our department sucked. I was overloaded with work from my boss, but the rest of the department was a bunch of slackers that were still around because they were my grand boss’s favorites and did little to no work. I was working my butt off doing special projects for my boss while my coworkers literally talked for four hour stretches. I got sick of lack of respect and overall dysfunction. The sad part was I agreed with the VP on some level but it really irked me when I was part of the negative comments purely by association when one of my coworkers messed up. Really bad management all around.

        1. NotKidding*

          That’s awful and I’m sorry you had to deal with it. In my case, everyone knew the offender was being unreasonable. It would’ve been a lot harder if I’d been in your situation.

      3. Tabby*

        Right? We’re all expected to go along with being insulted, these days. Um, no, thanks, I don’t think insulting people is funny, even if it’s meant to be “funny”. It’s not.

    2. Ellen*

      Start joking back. “Gee, you are SUCH an Asshole? Haha just kidding?” “If you were just competent about deadlines, you would have it within your timeframe, haha, just joking, we all KNOW how competent you are, or aren’t. ha. ha.”

      1. Not So NewReader*

        “You’re right. We only worry about deadlines for REAL employees, not the one’s who don’t do any work. Oh hahaha, just joking.”

        1. Schnookums Von Fancypants, Naughty Basic Horse*

          “I hope you get transferred to the papercut and lemon juice department! Just kidding! Tee-hee, aren’t I a scamp?”

      2. Richard Hershberger*

        Better yet, throw the person’s exact words back at him, changing only the name of the department. That makes it hard for him to complain.

        1. JSPA*

          No, if it’s unprofessional and weirdly casting aspersions on an entire department, you don’t want to normalize it, and you don’t want to give the offender a chance to say, if called on the carpet, “this is a game we both play, tossing it back and forth.”

      3. Kes*

        I won’t lie, that was one of my thoughts. “That’s okay, I don’t expect professionalism because you’re not a real manager. Haha, just joking”

    3. JSPA*

      Do it back, but (importantly!) not in a way that impugns their skills at their actual job…just their specific behavior. That way, if you want to complain later, they can’t say, “but OP does it too!”

      “Please wipe up that puddle of rude as you go.”
      “Did you take a class in Pas-Ag or learn it from the internet?”
      “Isn’t humor when you make the other person laugh?”
      “Do you have some of the other sort of joke? not-mean, actually funny…that sort of thing?”

      Or name it:

      “Frustrated humor isn’t actually humor at all, is it?”
      “I’m puzzled. When you use the grammar of humor to be irritated at people, do you think you’re engaging in actual humor, or do you know you’re being insulting, with humor as a cover?”
      “if you’re habitually the only one laughing, you’re laughing at people, as well as insulting them. That’s worse, not better.”
      “Let me cut you off. I don’t want you to praise me after insulting me. I want you to refrain from insulting me in the first place.”

    1. Clorinda*

      Strict polite professionalism, no socializing, no special favors, no acknowledgement of his rudeness.

      1. Anonomoose*

        In departments I’ve worked in:
        – a doubling of all estimated deadlines
        – delivery of work to *just* within our SLA
        – delivery of *exactly* what you asked for, on the computing front
        – implementation of the endless request for clarifying information protocol

        This is a friendly reminder to not annoy your IT systems team

    2. Amber T*

      When someone is an a-hole, they lose credibility in general. No matter what their complaint is, it’s just stemming from them being an a-hole. So you get the ability to say “wow, Fergus’s comment was mean, but he’s an a-hole, so I’m gonna let that roll off my back” instead of “this hurtful comment is affecting me.”

    3. NotKidding*

      OP here.

      The issue I raised in this letter is (thankfully) in the past. Well before the offending party departed, we’d already written them off as a rude and slightly ridiculous person.

      Our departmental response was exactly what Clorinda described. Strict professionalism, document everything, don’t get into non-work conversations. AmberT’s response is also on-point. We’re not the only ones who noticed this person’s bad behavior. It reflected poorly on them, not on us.

      1. Sara without an H*

        While I’m sure it was annoying at the time, it sounds as though you actually handled it pretty well. Be glad he’s now someone else’s problem.

      2. Mockingjay*

        I had a few people like this at ExToxic Job. SOPs and process became my best friends. Rather than address the obnoxious comment (because no one cared) when a jerk asked for a last-minute favor, I’d say, “Sorry, you didn’t submit X report on time. SOP says I have to have it at least 5 days in advance for processing. Bob and Sue’s reports are already in the queue ahead of yours.”

        One guy came back and whined, “Well, what do I do now? Call the client and tell him this report will be late?” Why yes. You waited until the night before it was due to give me a 50-page report to edit (which you lied and told me was only 13 pages). I am not going to drop their reports in favor of yours (nor am I staying late). Why should their projects be penalized by your lateness?

        1. Leisel*

          I had a coworker that would say, “The lack of planning on your end does not constitute an emergency on my end.” I like to keep that one in my back pocket, it does come in handy sometimes. You submit an invoice late, you’re getting paid late! Sorry, not an emergency to me!

          1. Richard Hershberger*

            I used to know a former Navy guy: the guy in charge of the torpedoes on a submarine. Those guys are all about attention to detail. He used to say “Proper prior planning prevents piss poor performance,” or simply “P7”.

      3. PeanutButter*

        Something that I’ve found works really well for a-hole “joke” remarks in general if they catch me off guard is to just say “How kind of you to say so,” and then continue on with the conversation as if the rudeness had never happened. It usually stops any more “jokey” barbs cold, and if it doesn’t then I go for a more direct approach like Allison’s to stop the nonsense. (Or get to the root of whatever their problem is.)

    4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      You treat them as the insignificant pisshead they have shown themselves as.

      A strictly business transaction. By the book.

    5. Not So NewReader*

      For me, I go a different direction.
      If someone has the brass to say such things to me, they opened the door.

      I agree with what Alison suggested and every time they say it the conversation becomes a long protracted and painful experience.

      Me:”Well you seem to be the only one here expressing there are issues. So I think it would be a good use of our time to sit with the boss and go over the issues, so we can stop these conversations because matters have been resolved.”

      Them:”It was a joke.”
      Me: “Once is a joke. A million times is a problem and we need to get to the bottom of whatever the problem here is.”

      Them: “It was a joke.”
      Me: “I doubt it as I hear it so often that I have to believe it’s an issue.”

  2. Beatrice*

    My go-yo response, when someone tries to pass off an insult as a joke, is “no, that wasn’t a joke. To be a joke, it has to be funny, and I’m not laughing.” Then nail them to the wall.

    1. NotKidding*

      Part of the challenge was how good this person was as a conversationalist. They’d drop the insult in and just breeze right through. It’d take a minute or two to catch up.

      What I really like about Allison’s suggested script is you can use it to bring up the matter minutes (or even days!) later. You don’t have to be on your toes to answer the second it happens.

      1. Eve's Husband's Mustache*

        I’ve noticed you refer to them as a “good conversationalist” in several comments now. I’d like to push back on that idea a little bit – it doesn’t sound like they were a good conversationalist at all! Being a “good conversationalist” requires good listening skills, emotional intelligence, and awareness of other people’s feelings.

        It sounds like this person was a fast-talking steamroller.

        It might help you in the future to reframe this: instead of “they were better at something than me so I struggled to catch up,” try “their way of interacting with others is overbearing and rude, and it’s no fault of my own that I can’t relate to that.”

        “I can’t get a word in edgewise and they purposely hurt my feelings” is a clue that you are, in fact, dealing with a TERRIBLE conversationalist.

        1. NotKidding*

          I get what you’re saying, but I would argue that they were actually quite good at the art of conversation. They were terrible, abusive, and rude, but they were also deft at maneuvering through any given group and moving the conversation in directions they found useful.

          I, by contrast, am most definitely a bad conversationalist. I’m awkward as heck.

          I think the distinction is important because most people think abuse is really easy to spot. They think abusers are caustic and super rude. However, real abusers are deft social climbers. Most of them are actually quite charming. It’s a skill they develop over long years to shield themselves from the consequences of their bad behavior. They’re likable until they’ve got some kind of leverage over you.

          1. Hills to Die on*

            I know exactly what you are saying. I just divorced one. Great social manipulator, great conversationalist. Could be charming and hilarious but could cut like a knife in the same breath. People who act like bullies are also frequently socially adept – at least in my experience.

            1. NotKidding*

              YES, exactly this!

              I’m sorry you had to endure that, it sounds awful. I’ve only had to put up with one full-on abuser in my life (not the person discussed here) and it was a harrowing experience.

              Congratulations on being free of them!

          2. Never Been There, Never Done That*

            I’m just catching up with the world and learned about microagressions. Death by a thousand microaggresions instead of cuts.

            1. NotKidding*

              It’s a common tactic of abusive people or hostile workplaces. Victims of the tactic had to come up with a name for it, and microaggressions works really well.

              “I had to quit because they kept doing [minor thing x] and saing [minor thing y]” sounds weird and petty “I had to quit because management engaged in a harassment campaign of carefully crafted microaggressions” has a lot more teeth.

          3. 2 Cents*

            Yep, the a-hole at my last job struck people as smart, jovial and a great conversationalist. Too bad he was a Grade A mansplainer who didn’t do any work on his own, but would take mine and slap his name on it. I, too, am awkward in conversation, so I appreciate the scripts above. (Thankfully, I left that place.)

          4. Booju*

            That’s really not what being a good conversationalist is about. That’s about being a good manipulator. They may have been verbally adept but they were definitely NOT good at conversation.

        2. Alli525*

          Seriously. Just because someone was clearly Debate Club Champion in high school, that doesn’t mean they’re a good conversationalist – it means they’re a good spin doctor.

          1. NotKidding*

            The heart of this thread is a question of the definition of “Conversationalist”. If you mean it as “This person is warm and friendly and a great listener” then yeah, they weren’t a good conversationalist.

            If you mean it as “for better or worse, this person was very good at manipulating the flow and tone of a conversation” then it makes more sense.

            I like TootsNYC’s take on it. They were a skilled verbal adversary.

            1. TootsNYC*

              well, conversationalists aren’t just great listeners or warm and friendly–but they DO engage in meaningful and respectful back-and-forth, both speaking and listening in turn, paying attention to what is actually said and responding to it in a way that expands the information or meaning that’s shared.

        3. Althea*

          I’d say he’s a good conversationalist, still. He can be skilled and use those skills toward a bad goal at the same time. Like a company that is great at operations but produces something really bad for your health, for example.

          1. NotKidding*

            That’s kind of what I was going for. If you see “conversationalist” as being a good thing, it doesn’t really sound right. I’m using “conversationalist” to mean “skilled at conversation” not “good listener” or “kind”.

            1. Close Bracket*

              Some people like to frame things as very black and white, and arguing over whether he was a good conversationalist is akin to nit picking. He had excellent conversation skills that he used for evil. The skills were still excellent, though.

            2. Antilles*

              Conversation requires listening. Otherwise it isn’t a conversation, it’s a speech.

              You can use the word as you like, but if you actually want people to understand what you are saying, it’s a good idea to use words in their accepted manner and not to mean something you’ve just decided to make it mean.

              This guy was NOT skilled at conversation, from what you have said. He was skilled at talking over/around/through people. That’s not a conversation.

              1. Botanist*

                I’m finding this whole chain about what defines a good conversationalist to be quite fascinating. I like how you’re putting it. I think I’d call him a smooth talker rather than a good conversationalist.

                1. NotKidding*

                  If I had to start this particular thread again, I’d go with TootsNYC’s version: Skilled verbal adversary.

    2. netnrrd*

      This has worked well. I’ve also used “Oh, see, I like to indicate my jokes are jokes by making them, you know, funny.”

    3. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Borrow a line from one of my favorite sf stories: “You’re not much better at jokes than I am.”

  3. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    Oh yes, acting like you have no sense of humor and are processing their comments as dead serious will often throw them for a loop. But you’ve got to be consistent about it.

    1. NotKidding*

      It’s tough. In the moment I’m conditioned to let slights slide. I’m a very live and let live kind of person and it’s rare that an insult is worth answering. I agree that it’s the best tactic, but there’s a big gap between theory and practice.

    2. Snoop*

      yes, I’ve tried, “wait, what was that?” or, “wait, what do you mean?” Really quick after they try to play it off. Sometimes just a quick calling them out on it can be enough to get them to knock it off.

  4. anonymous 5*

    I also like the deadpan, “oh, and what was supposed to be funny?” if someone doubles down on “just joking.” But that’s a harsher option than the two presented here, so gauge expenditures of professional capital accordingly!

    1. S*

      This what I was going to say. I have heard this advice about “jokes” about sexist or racist comments.

      “I don’t understand the joke, can you explain it to me?” “I still don’t understand, maybe I’m just not funny enough” “Oh, the joke is that I’m less intelligent because I am a woman, I get it now, that’s hilarious!”

  5. Kai Jones*

    I like the response I’ve seen proposed for sexist or racist “jokes,” “Please explain why that was funny.”

    1. Copenhagen*

      Yeah, I’m a big fan of the “I’m sorry I don’t think I understood your joke, would you mind explaining it?” approach. And it’s okay to use it even if the other person has switched subjects since it just indicates that you spent a few seconds thinking about the joke, not being able to figure it out.

  6. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    “I’m just joking” is meant to create a lose/lose proposition for you. They say the jerky thing, and your choices are

    A) laugh along with them — which validates that what they said is okay
    B) take it seriously, at which point they can cast you as the no-fun party for taking offense at a joke.

    It’s a jerk move, and an unfortunately popular one, because no one likes to be “no fun” and trying to say that something wasn’t actually remotely funny doesn’t work all that well.

      1. Retail not Retail*

        I claimed that no fun badge by reporting my guy to HR. Which he later complained about when working with another woman, because she told me she told him she got along with everyone etc etc she doesn’t make a fuss.

        2 weeks later and she was sick of him.

    1. NotKidding*

      I like Allison’s version of the no-fun response. If you take it super seriously, they’re forced to address the matter directly or drop it. It’s like a variation of “explain the joke to me”, but it’s more applicable to the situation I described, and less useful for the (sadly all too common) sexist/racist jokes.

      1. Sparrow*

        You do still have to be comfortable either cutting them off or raising the issue after the conversation has moved on, which many people would find awkward. So it might require some practicing/mental prep, either way, but it sounds like it would be worthwhile!

    2. Kat in VA*

      There’s an impolite term for that: Schrödinger’s Asshole.

      Whether or not the “joke” (or comment or statement) is actually funny (or true or relevant) is dependent upon the reaction of the recipient.

      See also: Schrödinger’s Sexist, Schrödinger’s Racist, and so forth and so on.

      These kind of people rely on the social contract (where you don’t instantly call them out on their BS) to continue their brand of nonsense.

      (I’m only partway through the comments; I imagine someone else might have brought this up.)

    3. There's probably a cat meme to describe it*

      I’ve come from very casual, jokey, and at times inappropriate offices and even there saying a shitty thing and following it up with “just joking!” wouldn’t fly. Because if the object of the joke isn’t in on the joke it’s no longer affectionate teasing, it’s an intimidation powerplay.

  7. Don*

    “Whether you are kidding or not, it’s insulting.”

    “When you say insulting things, your intention isn’t relevant. It’s insulting and unprofessional.”

    “It doesn’t really matter. I’m telling you that when you say things like that I am insulted. You can decide for yourself whether you’re willing to ‘just tell a joke’ that I find insulting, I suppose.”

    It’s mind-blowing that someone would think that sort of “not how I meant it” nonsense was going to just make it all okay. You couldn’t do that with racist or sexist jokes in any sort of decent organization.

    1. sacados*

      Yeah it’s the same as people who think that starting a sentence with “No offense but…” then gives them the license to say whatever offensive thing they want and nobody can get upset at them.

      1. The Engineer*

        “No offense but . . .” merits an unfortunate delay of what actually was needed followed by the equally sincere “No harm done . . .” when it is noticed.

        1. Leisel*

          Haha! That reminds me of this conversation from the movie Talladega Nights:

          Mr. Dennit: Ricky, your little obscene gesture is going to cost you 100 points. Do you know how much that costs us in sponsorship dollars?
          Ricky: With all due respect, Mr. Dennit, I had no idea you’d gotten experimental surgery to have your b@!!s removed.
          Mr. Dennit: What did you just say to me?
          Ricky: What? I said it with all due respect!
          Mr. Dennit: Just because you say that doesn’t mean you get to say whatever you want to say to me!
          Ricky: It sure as hell does!
          Mr. Dennit: No, it doesn’t–
          Ricky: It’s in the Geneva Conventions, look it up!

        1. NotKidding*

          Haha! Where have I heard those suggested before? :-D

          The challenge with this particular offender is the way they’d stage the cadence of the conversation. It was really tough (obviously by design) to respond right when they said it because of how the conversation would flow.

          I like Allison’s suggestions because you can use them without having to respond in-the-moment. You could follow up later with a version of that and it’d still work.

          1. Hills to Die on*

            I have played around with this before. I just dump that lump of awkward right in the middle of it. Cut them off, a few times if necessary and don’t let them duck around it or play it off. Let the awkward hang in the air and plow straight to your point. Fortunately, bringing it up later works well too. They might get defensive and tell people you make such a big deal out of nothing and you are so sensitive or whatever, but that’s just more of the same. They might even joke around about how ‘God forbid don’t crack a joke around NotKidding – she will hound you later and badger you about it!’ I just kept to my script and it works fine.

            1. NotKidding*

              I’m also just not the type to cut people off. It’s not a tactic I’ve ever managed to employ effectively. Circling back after the fact works better with me and how my particular brain would approach it, so I’m really grateful for some of the suggestions in this thread. There’s some great tactics here for not letting something slide while still not responding the split second it happens.

  8. KitCroupier*

    It’s so petty but I’d be really tempted to look them squarely in the eye and go “Hm. Your request will be processed a day later than I originally anticipated.” Then keep adding time for every “Just kidding!”

    1. Antilles*

      Most of the time you probably don’t have the clout or management support to pull it off…but in the rare occasions that you *can* get away with it, petty absolutely works.
      “Since we’re not a real accounting department, you’re now getting it Friday instead of Thursday…yes I’m serious, keep pushing and it’ll be Monday” tends to shut crap like this down very quickly.

    2. NotKidding*

      Honestly? My manager would probably have backed me on that one.

      Still, while it’s fun to imagine, that’s just not the way I’m wired. I care too much about doing the best job I can to derail a business process just because someone is being rude.

      So tempting though. So tempting.

      1. old curmudgeon*

        See, that’s exactly what a bully like this guy relies on – he knows you take your job seriously and he knows you act professionally, and he uses that knowledge to bully you.

        We had (past tense, thankfully) someone like that in an extremely senior position in my agency for a couple of years, and it drove off at least two good people who were just too inculcated with professionalism to call him on his bullying nonsense. I am glad for you that you got rid of yours as well – and I am taking notes of the suggestions in this thread for the next such bully I encounter. Because you know there’s always gonna be another one.

    3. Kes*

      “Okay cool, if you don’t need a quick turnaround I’ll move it to the bottom of my priorities list”

    4. Julia*

      I did that to a guy who was really hard to work for. We had gotten the first man on our interpreting team, and he was shadowing me while I was in the field with Hard To Work For Jokester (hard to work for as in talks facing away from you, mixes in words from different languages, makes you do unsafe stuff), and he said, “oh, finally you have a man! Men are so much better at XYZ.”

      I looked at him and said, “great, I’ll let our scheduler know that us women are off the hook from your cr*p”, and suddenly he backtracked and asked why I was being mean.

      In this case, I probably would have said, “cool, so you can bother the real accounting department with your stuff and leave me be”.

  9. Scarlett*

    One of my favorite phrases I learned from a previous manager is: “It sounds like there is some feedback for me in there.” I used it to help me as I was managing an under-performing employee who was passive aggressive, but I think it could work well here too.

  10. Close Bracket*

    This is exactly what “Bless your heart” was made for. It relies on the same plausible deniability that this guy is using to his advantage.

    “Oh bless your heart, you’re such a kidder. No, but seriously, you’ll let me know if there’s a problem, right?”

    1. WellRed*

      If you’re in an area where “bless your heart” is a thing, maybe. It’d sound pretty strange in my corner of the US. But then, there’s something to be said for just outright confusing people, too.

      1. NotKidding*

        Times like that, I wish “Bless your heart” were a thing in my region. As it stands, it’d sound really out sync with the local dialect. :-(

        1. Close Bracket*

          I don’t know what your region is, but if you are in the US, it’s a thing in your region. Like many Southernisms, it has migrated. I say it all the time with all degrees of meaning, though, so if it’s not already part of your vocabulary, it might sound affected. But that’s just a good reason to make it part of your vocabulary!

    2. Alice*

      The thing is — if everyone knows that “bless your heart” can mean “I hate your guts and I have good manners,” then is the deniability really plausible anymore?

  11. Corporate Cynic*

    “Oh! Well, jokes are usually funny – since that wasn’t, hopefully you can see why I’m confused.”

    1. Alan*

      This would be similar to my response, pretty much just say ‘Hilarious’ in a sarcastic voice and roll my eyes

  12. Shadowbelle*

    Don’t address it directly. If you do, you just feed it. Instead, respond with raised eyebrows, a cold expression, and an even colder, “I beg your pardon?” This can be repeated indefinitely.

    1. Kes*

      I was actually thinking along these lines – unimpressed look, even if you can’t address it directly in time, with an added “Really?” if you can and are willing to.

  13. INTJ*

    I’m more… confrontational than the average person, but if I didn’t feel like I was able to acknowledge it in the moment the next time they came by for a request I’d probably say something like, “What back handed compliments do you have for me today? – Just kidding! How can I help you?” or do something similar to them. I know this isn’t the most professional answer, but sometimes if you can take it AND give it, it shifts the dynamic.

    1. Retail not Retail*

      Haha tempting! My annoying coworker hates when people call him anything except his name or the nickname he’s picked out. He loves to chew out the work crew guys (not our equals) who call him “bud” or “grandpa,”* then turn around and butcher their names. And his coworkers’ names!

      So I’d love to call him the wrong ass name entirely or invoke major rage and call him another nickname for his name.

      *someone on equal footing but in a different department does call him grandpa and such

        1. Retail not Retail*

          The one who started it is older than him – and he never said anything to that guy so why would new work crew guy know where the limits of joking are? (Work crew guy is also subject to multiple butcherings of his name a day – this includes yelling bc sometimes we just don’t respond unless he calls us our name. “Oh you wanted tim? But you said tom while looking at adam”

    2. Whyblue*

      This! I would have great fun to think of the snarkiest joke I could get away with and use it the next time he had a request. This feels like a classic power game to me so throwing it right back in his face would be oddly satisfying to me.
      You: “Invoice? *sounding confused* Oh you mean that paper thingy? It’s probably over in that stack in the corner. Well, you know we’re not a real accounting department, but I’m sure we’ll get to it before the end of the year. *Pause for effect* Just kidding, you’ll have it by the end of the week.“
      Him: “That was unprofessional.”
      You: “Oh, I am so sorry if you felt my little joke was unprofessional. You make jokes like that all the time, do I didn’t think you would be so sensitive.” *Internal victory lap, because I would count this one as a win!*
      Added benefit: you get to practice your verbal comebacks…

    3. There's probably a cat meme to describe it*

      I agree it’s not the most professional answer, but damn I really, really love this. Calling it out like that really sucks that power of intimidation away from them.

    1. NotKidding*

      So do I! I watched/read some interesting material on how to give apologies, and it was really eye-opening. Real apologies give control to the offended party, rather than reserving as much of it as possible for yourself. If the subject of the apology is the victim instead of the offender, it’s usually a nonpology.

      “I’m sorry if you felt upset by the thing I said” – Nonpology
      “I’m sorry I upset you.” – Apology

      Politicians (from all political bents) LOVE the nonpology.

      1. Shadowbelle*

        I wasn’t aware of that distinction, but it certainly clarifies the difference. Non-pologies are dismissive and infuriating, and retain power. Real apologies make the apologizer vulnerable.

  14. Heidi*

    What’s funny to me is that our “real” accounting department would not make any effort to help this person out with a last-minute request.

    My fantasy petty response: “You’re an obnoxious coward. Haha just kidding! But I’m not. Yes I am!”

    But seriously, I recommend not spending any more mental energy dealing with this guy. He’s out of your life.

    1. Grapey*

      Same. That’s how people get added to block lists. “Sorry, everyone from the “real” accounting department is out for the foreseeable future. Doesn’t seem like anybody can deal with your request at the moment.”

    2. NotKidding*

      Eh, I’m happy they’re gone, but people like that aren’t unique. I’m less worried about them specifically, and more about building a toolbox of useful responses when someone else comes at me with insults or negativity.

      1. Oranges*

        Dang, you have your head on straight. I’ve been impressed with your thoughtfulness and knowledge of your own psyche throughout this thread. I also would find this hard especially since my brain also works much like yours in this particular situation.

        If I ever run into This Guy at work. I’ll probably use the “circle back” strategy.

    3. Jedi Squirrel*

      That was my passive-aggressive thought, as well. “Normally, I’d have this for you on Wednesday, but since you’re not a real manager, I won’t have it to you until Friday. Ha, ha, just kidding, I know you’re a ‘real’ manager.”

      And then get it to him on Wednesday. Next Wednesday, that is. “Oh, I’m sorry, all the real managers understood I meant next week. I always mean next week.”

      Totally unprofessional and passive aggressive, but it’s a nice little fantasy.

  15. Book Badger, Attorney-at-Claw*

    “Why do people do this? It’s like they know they’re being jerky but think the ‘I’m kidding’ will somehow absolve them.”

    It’s Schrödinger’s Asshole: the comment is serious until it is observed by another (and with that observation, the potential of consequence), at which point it becomes a joke.

      1. NotKidding*

        It’s a tactic in an abuser’s toolbox. Toxic people learn these kinds of tricks over long years of being mean to everyone around them. It’s an effective way to get in a jab while eroding the target’s ability to respond.

          1. Junger*

            Well, that’s more about lying to someone until they start to doubt their own experiences and memories.

            Also a favored tactic of long-time abusers, but not what the OP described.

      2. Sparrow*

        And they’re relying on everyone else to follow social conventions and let it go because they don’t want to make things awkward/difficult/etc. It’s definitely strategic.

  16. Threeve*

    I have a coworker who does this. But she goes with “I’m just teeeeasing” in a sing-song baby voice. Arm pat. Sickly-sweet smile. She seems to think it’s both effective and adorable and oh my god is it obnoxious.

    1. StaceyIzMe*

      Can you “do” a Shirley Temple voice? “Is Missy Wissy a liddle grumpie-umpie today? Did that bad old job put her in a bad old mood…?” Followed by “pat…pat…” (air pats, don’t copy her rather bad example here…) Bonus points if you can do it in a soft enough voice that you don’t attract undue attention.

    2. Just J.*

      This would be rewarded with the death stare and the comment, stated seriously and in mono-tone “No, I don’t think you really are just teasing” (or just joking in OP’s case). And then walk away.

    3. NotKidding*

      I think Alison’s scripts would be really effective here too! It’s basically the same nonsense I had to put up with.

      1. NotKidding*

        I am so torn by this comparison!
        On the one hand: Yes. My coworker was Mother Gothel. The mannerisms, the tactics, the cadence, the whole being a terrible person…
        On the other hand: Mother Gothel is a racist stereotype.

        I really _really_ want to use the comparison. I strongly debated including it in the letter because it was unearthly how similar they were. However, I find Mother Gothel’s depiction offensive on a number of levels, so I wasn’t willing to use it as a shorthand.

  17. Beverly*

    I really like Alison’s scripts and I think the key to making them work is tone. I agree it’s meant to set up a lose/lose situation, so the key is flipping the script so that it’s a normal work conversation about expectations/frustration and then pushing through their objections that it’s a joke (because it isn’t). Maybe aim for concerned-but-matter-of-fact? He’s trying to set up what kinds of reactions you’re allowed to have. If you push through the anxiety of changing the tone, then you can get to the actual content of what he’s saying, which is that he has different expectations for your department — and that’s something you can really address and hopefully shortcut more of these awful not-jokes.

    1. NotKidding*

      Yeah, this thread has some really good phrases in it for addressing this kind of tactic. I’m glad I don’t have to put up with that nonsense anymore, but I’m always looking for better tools for the conversational toolbox.

  18. Dust Bunny*

    I have never in my life met anyone who did this who wasn’t just a jerk who was unwilling to take responsibility for what they said. Ever.

    I come from a long line of women with steel-blue eyes and a genetic capacity for death-staring. The rest of you will have to practice your snappy comebacks, I’m afraid.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        I wonder what he’d do if you gave him the steely look of your strictest high school teacher, and said “Own your words or they are meaningless.”

    1. NotKidding*

      Oh I completely agree, and I never took their comments seriously. However, I’ve been in situations (also thankfully past) where I would have taken the critique to heart and let it really hurt me. It’s why I sent in the letter. It’s a tough tactic to address. Allison (and the commetariat’s) suggestions are really good! I hope they’ll help someone else dealing with similar tactics, and they’re great for adding to my own responses should something like this come up again.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I do a great dead-behind the eyes blank stare.

      My go to is just “okay then” and let them go high five themselves for being superior to us little folk.

  19. Grapey*

    My response to similar remarks (at worst) have been an eyeroll with a “what a weird remark” face to anyone else in the room, but usually I’d just ignore it. Responding gives them the attention they want, and they (should) come off as unprofessional to anyone else in earshot.

    If they have actual deliverable problems, they’ll be quicker to drop the joking attitude once they realize they need your help to solve it.

  20. DarthVelma*

    We’ve been working with my youngest nephew to get him to stop doing this. But he’s 13. And it’s our job to turn him into an adult human. Your former cow-irker should have grown out of this a very long time ago.

    The only advice I can offer is what we’ve told the nephew repeatedly – it isn’t funny. Saying “not really” or “just joking” doesn’t make what you said go away. It just makes people not like you. And it can make them not take anything you say seriously.

  21. velocisarah*

    Ugh, I used to have a coworker that would “jokingly” call me the Junior Senior X Officer when introducing me to people, when in reality we were both Senior X Officers. The same kind of “haha, I called you not as good!” mentality (And I was younger than him, and a woman, and he was threatened so… fun! /s).

    After a few times telling him afterwards that I didn’t appreciate it and trying to save him face, he finally even added “she hates when I call her that!” as though that was some cute trademark of his, and I was stuck just agreeing I hated it blankly until the awkwardness washed over us all and the topic changed. He didn’t say it again, at least not with me around.

    Be the no-fun-haver, don’t let people make these kinds of comments without them knowing they aren’t welcome!

    1. 'Tis Me*

      I’d like to think I’d go with a calm, pleasant, in the moment, “Wouldn’t you be a bit irked when a coworker kept deliberately lowering your title and therefore trying to diminish both your professional standing and the hard work you put into gaining it, every time they introduced you to somebody? Then started trying to publicly laugh it off after being called out on it in private several times? But I wouldn’t say I hate it: I recognise your insistence in continuing an immature, ridiculous, unprofessional practice says a lot more about you than me, and as we build up a working relationship with [names of the other people] here, that will be more than apparent to them. So I wouldn’t say I care about it anywhere near enough to hate it. It just further reduces my respect for you each time you do it, but that’s completely your choice.”

      Or possibly just hand them a correctly labelled business card and say calmly “He thinks he’s funny and doesn’t believe me that he’s just making a fool of himself. Don’t worry, he’s generally competent otherwise. Pleased to meet you.”

      In reality, a raised eyebrow, unamused glare is more likely because sometimes speaking calmly in the face of excessive irritation is difficult.

      I might also consider going to HR/a shared manager, explaining that I’ve addressed it with him repeatedly and he won’t stop, that I’m concerned that it makes him look like a buffoon to the people he does it with (and possibly an insecure misogynist if they conclude he’s doing it because *younger woman zomg threaten, with a neat document citing dates, times, any follow-up when this has caused awkwardness because it’s led other people to initially doubt my authority, times when people have asked to work with me instead of him after getting to know us both, etc.

      1. velocisarah*

        He was twenty bad co-workers all wrapped into one, that’s for sure! Luckily that caught up to him and they didn’t renew his contract – turns out likability matters in our industry! (PR/Comms)

        Seriously, it became a near daily “what the hell did Coworker do now?” game of BINGO near the end of his contract…

    2. Gazebo Slayer*

      I’d be tempted to point out in front of others that he was doing it because be was threatened by a younger, female coworker having the same job.

      1. velocisarah*

        Honestly, I should have. It was so obvious to everyone around us! I was so worried about being the “mean” one, I didn’t want to make things awkward! I’m now in a much better job with a different org, and more empowered to voice when I’m uncomfortable!

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          One of the best things I’ve learned lately is the phrase “Return awkward to sender.”

  22. Been There*

    Oh man, have I been here before! It’s like any time someone prefaces a statement with ‘No offense, but…’ they 100% intend to be offensive. I have no advice, but SO glad that jerkwad is out of your office.

  23. Ann O'Nemity*

    It’s like saying, “I’m not a racist but…” and then saying something racist. That kind of preface doesn’t make it ok! And saying “just kidding” doesn’t make it ok!

    I’d go with something direct, like “Wow, sounds like you’re not kidding.” (Or, “wow, that sounds really racist.”)

    1. Jaydee*

      “Good thing you clarified that you’re not a racist because that second part sounded really racist.”

      “Good thing you clarified you were just joking because it sounded like you were questioning my ability to do my job, which I take very seriously.”

      “Good thing you said ‘no offense’ because the rest of what you said was pretty offensive.”

  24. StaceyIzMe*

    I’ve always favored putting the issue back in the lap of the person issuing the insult by asking “what do you mean by that”? In this case, though, it sounds like you’ve got a person who is going to hide behind the (tissue paper thin) veneer of supposed humor. You can either go with “that’s not funny… but then, you’re not ACTUALLY a comedian” or just call them out directly “you know, that’s not nearly as amusing as you seem to think… it’s oddly hostile, actually.” Since you don’t report directly to them, what are they gonna do, cry to your supervisor? Nope, didn’t think so…

    1. Lana Kane*

      “What do you mean by that?” always works well for me. It’s an instant on-the-spot question that makes the person either squirm, or realize that they said something the wrong way.

  25. VirginiaGirl*

    Allison’s response is so helpful! There are people in my social circles (friends of friends) that say rude stuff, follow it up with “Just kidding,” and I never know what to say.

    1. irene adler*

      Yeah- my take as well.
      Cannot – for the life of me- comprehend how this can be construed as funny.
      Had a friend who, if someone did this to her, would get right up close to the offender and say, “Excuse me?” several times, and poke at them while holding a lit cigarette in her hand. The offender would be trying to keep out of the way of the lit end. I don’t think anyone tried this to her twice.
      Telling ya, smoking should make a come back just so folks can do this to the jerks who think insulting people is funny.

      1. GreenDoor*

        Ha! In this situation, my smoker-Gramma would’ve said “Excuse me” and then immediately blown a lung full of smoke right in their face, then while they worked through their coughing jag, she’d’ve shut them down by starting in with “It’s a*ssholes like you….” and then by the time they recovered, she’d turn to the person on her other side and change the subject.

        I miss her.

  26. aebhel*

    Can confirm that being extremely un-fun in response to these sort of ‘jokes’ is pretty effective, as long as you’re willing to be seen as a bit mean. People who do this kind of thing rely on everyone else following social scripts, so if you nudge it off of ‘haha! we’re all just joking (meanly)’ to ‘SRS business concerns, please tell me what you meant by that’, the wind tends to go out of their sails. Or at lease, in my experience, they stop doing it directly to you.

    1. aebhel*

      (if you want to be really snide about it, you can respond to any complaints about turnover with ‘oh, you know, we’re not a *real* accounting department, but we do the best we can!’

      …this is not very professional, but it *is* very satisfying, so there’s that)

  27. Optimus Prima Donna*

    When they do that, I’d ask them to repeat what they said.
    “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that comment about my department, could you repeat it please?” If they come back with, “I was just kidding, can’t you take a joke” just pause for a second (makes jerks super uncomfortable, that’s why they quickly say, just kidding.) and then you repeat it, “Hmm…you said that I probably don’t know how to do this?” and tilt your head forward like you are really focusing on hearing what they said. Keep your vice soft, curious, and calm. This will set them off balance because now they know you are listening and, more importantly, their comments are being isolated and clarified. At the end of the day, this person is a coward and cowards hate for the spotlight to be on them when they have just done wrong, that exposure is deeply uncomfortable.

    Each time they throw a low blow and then quickly cover it just saying, “Haha, kidding” and, do that…slow them down, make them repeat the comment or you repeat it yourself, see just how uncomfortable they get.

    Them: I should have known you wouldn’t know how to handle it. Just kidding!
    You: Oh, sorry, I didn’t catch that, what did you say?
    Them: About the invoice? I need it today.
    You: No, no…about me? I thought you said that you didn’t think I could handle it, is that what you said?
    Them: I was kidding, haha!
    You: Oh…okay. But that is what you said? (eyebrows up, keep your expression open and receptive)
    Then: Uhh, no…I mean, yes but it was a joke, you are not seeing the, uh, joke.
    Me: Ahh…I see.
    Then leave or end the conversation. Do this each and everytime they throw an insult and of they have an ounce of brain matter, they will see the imminent danger looming with their becoming more exposed.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        “Sorry you feel that way.”

        “My intentions…”

        “Can’t we joke around anymore? When did everyone get so PC?”

  28. I Need That Pen*

    I clapped back with something in a similar situation,
    “It was just a joke.”
    Me: “Where’s the punchline. I’m sure it’s not me, is it?”

    Or if I get the “can’t take a joke huh,” I usually respond with “I can when there is one.” Why don’t they just come right out and say, “I know I’m being a jerk, here’s hoping you don’t respond to it so I’ll throw in a hardy har har.” Please.

  29. somebody blonde*

    I think the way I would deal with this is to play really, really dumb. “Oh, that was a joke? Could you explain it to me, because I didn’t really understand what part was supposed to be funny.” To completely get away with this strategy, you need a sunny, happy, bubbly tone, but if you don’t mind getting called out for being a little hostile, you can tone it down and still have pretty good plausible deniability. This is basically my racist joke strategy, but it works for all kinds of jokes and comments that are offensive.

  30. Master Bean Counter*

    My go to in this kind of situation is, “I’m sorry, What?” Said in a voice that makes it clear that this is not an invitation to repeat what you just said, but a chance to correct what you just said.
    Otherwise I’d say, “I’ll hold this until the real accounting department gets here.”
    If I’m really cranky..which happens more than it should these days, “I would process this for you today but you’re not a real salesman (or what ever they are).”

    1. NotKidding*

      Ooh, I like “I’ll hold on to this for the real department to show up.” I’d never use it, but I’d really love to.

      Optimus Prima Donna made a really good point that asking them to repeat it can be very effective. As soon as you focus the conversation on what they said, you’ve already pulled all the power out of it.

      1. Swordspoint*

        Cheerily: “oh, ok! You want the other accounting department? I’ll transfer your call.” Put them on hold and leave them there.

        (Not really. But would be so satisfying.)

  31. voyager1*

    I would first try one of the first of the scripts that AAM suggested. But if that didn’t work I am kind of surprised AAM doesn’t suggest escalating this to whoever “Just Kidding” reported to. I wouldn’t count on “Just Kidding” to be self aware enough to stop what they are doing on their own.

    Jerks get away with stuff because nobody wants to stand up to them.

    1. NotKidding*

      Eh, the person in question was C level. They answered to the CEO. I _like_ the CEO, but bringing this kind of comment to them would’ve come across as weird and petty.

      Which, of course, is part of the tactic employed. Don’t say something mean enough for HR to get involved. It’s a classic microaggression.

      1. Master Bean Counter*

        Not weird and petty. i would want to know if one of my reports was acting like a jerk. I have more power than you to tell them to knock it off. And I would.

  32. MOAS*

    I have nothing to add except that this person sounds like a major douche canoe. I’m sorry you had to deal with such an asshat at work. Hopefully better things are to come.

  33. Hey Karma, Over Here*

    What’s the issue with sounding defensive?
    “Ha ha, just kidding.”
    “Doesn’t sound like you’re kidding. You’ve said that every time you’ve requested something from me.”
    “Sor-ree. I didn’t know you’d be so defensive about it!”
    “Well, now you do. When you tell me I’m terrible at my job and department is terrible overall, I’m offended. If you have a specific issue, we can discuss…”
    “Whoa, whoa, I was making a joke, you don’t have to get so upset. If you can’t take a joke, I won’t joke with you.”
    At this point, I don’t deny I’m upset. Or deal with the BS, you can’t take a joke. Fine. I can’t take a joke. Everyone knows you are the asshole. You are not joking and you are a passive aggressive shit. If I have to let you “win” the battle to win the war, I’m in.
    (I’m also the one who, when hearing him trying this BS on peers will offer a friendly, “oh, if you tell him you don’t like joking around about work, he will stop saying that you suck every time he asks for a favor!” and a big old smile.

  34. Maxie's Mommy*

    “You know that you’re going to need something from me again one day. Is there anything in that last statement you want to reconsider?”

  35. Delphine*

    You know, I think responding, “We are a real accounting department,” with a straight face and deadpan tone kills the defensiveness of the statement. I would have used that type of response a couple of times, and then eventually escalated into addressing the comment head-on, if it was clear the person wasn’t getting the message.

  36. kvite*

    I pretty sure I’m not a very good person, but I’d go for the jugular. The thing is, if he does it to you, he does it to other people too, and everybody knows he’s a jerk. Invoke the community.

    “When you say things like that, no one believes you’re just joking. It’s unprofessional.”
    — and then when he stammers to reply you simply say “I accept your apology.”

    It’s probably best to leave it right there, but on my prickliest days I’d say “Do I need to explain to you like you’re a 5 year old why this is not the only priority we have today?”

  37. TootsNYC*

    I think I’d come up with a basic phrase and then send it back to him every time, with his crack highlighted in bold or in a background color. And if it’s email, about the third time, I’d start CC’ing his boss and mine.

    “I’m going to ask you to stop taking jabs at my department.”

    (no “it’s not funny,” or “I know you don’t mean it.” Just: “I’m going to ask you to stop.” I don’t think I’d say “Please stop…” or even “stop”–I think the “I’m going to ask” gives you the politeness vibe of “please” without actually sounding like a request)

    And use the exact same wording every time, and use it in person as well. With a very even, non-heated but firm, tone of voice. And when he says “I’m kidding,” you say, in that same authoritative tone, “Nevertheless.” And stop talking. Give him a very level look.

    I would probably first print out about 3 of his emails and bring them with me when I briefed my boss on what I was going to do. It would be about dragging this stuff out into the open, and making it very visible how OFTEN he was doing this.

    1. NotKidding*

      Oh if it’d been in an email, I would’ve addressed it head on. I’m much better in text than in conversation. That’s the thing though, people like this don’t put their jabs where they can be recorded. They make sure it’s always in conversation, preferably only with their target.

  38. Janis Ian*

    Do you work with my high school cheerleading teammate? She was EXACTLY like your coworker. And if I dared to try to stand up for myself or do anything besides laugh and go along with it she was very talented at making it seem like I was the loser who couldn’t take a joke. Also, she was the Regina George of the school and I was kind of an outcast so that just made it worse.

    I do not miss those days. It’s been almost ten years and I still can’t stand those types of “jokes”

  39. Macedon*

    I’m bad at keeping my PA kn check, my go-to would be a cheery, “Ahhhhh, well, it’s just that we know you’re not a real (WHATEVER) department, so you’re last on our list hahahaha” and see who blinks/stops fake-laughing first.

  40. Jh*

    Oh… I’d insult them right back.

    “Maybe if you generated more sales we’d be able to be real accountants!”

    “Just kidding….!”

  41. Down2MarsGirl*

    I’d be dishing it back. After a few times, I’d probably start with “your invoice will be ready on x day. If that’s an issue, please directly say so instead of making passive aggressive insults and playing it off as a joke. Thanks!”

  42. Phillip*

    Need the “BURN!” guy from the other letter to come in and do that super exaggerated forced laughter kids do when one of em tries to make a joke and it doesn’t land.

  43. Fall of the House of Gushers*

    “So it was an insulting/offensive/uncomfortable joke instead of an insulting/offensive/uncomfortable statement?”

    Phrased as though you’re asking for clarification.

  44. Delta Delta*

    For things like this I am a huge fan of uncomfortable, stony silence. If in person, add in a dead-eye stare.

    1. mcr-red*

      This. My emotionally abusive ex was very bad about this – being insulting and then saying, “Just kidding!” And yeah. He’s not kidding. He’s saying it and thinking he can get away with it. Oh, and if you do it back to them, “You’re an obnoxious d-bag…just kidding!” they get angry. At least he did.

      The dead horrible silence is the only way of dealing with him.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I prefer the “Get new jokes and maybe people will laugh with you! J/K J/K Now about that invoice.”

  45. Automated*

    My experience with these types is that unless an equal brings up the issue or says something then you will be painted as the issue. Alisons scripts are great for peers but not for one-ups who will probably go to your boss to talk about you undermining them.

    Personal experience. Believe what people tell you about themselves. This person is saying they are passive aggressive and petty.

  46. Triumphant Fox*

    If you feel like you can’t handle the awkwardness, or the “unfun” attitude, I’ve has success with smiling and laughing the first couple times, and acting like they are so odd for saying what they did. After a couple times, I turn on the unfunness and ask them not to do it again. Basically, “Woah, you can’t just drop a bomb and run! What did you mean?”

    Them: “I mean, I should have known you guys would have had a tough time handling it. Just kidding! Anyway, did you see those expense reports. I’m having a tough time filling them out with everything they require. Takes me ages!”
    Me: “Woah, are you just going to breeze pass that first comment? What did you mean about us not being able to handle it?”
    Them: “I was just kidding. You know what I mean.”
    Me: “I don’t, actually. It’s such an odd thing to say when you’ve asked for something. Is there something we’re doing wrong?”
    Them: “God, take a joke. It’s not a big deal. Let’s move on.”
    Me: “I don’t know if I love jokes where it sounds like I’m incompetent. Anyway, those expense reports are so long now! We switched to a new system and….”

    Eventually, it’s just “I thought we talked about this. You cannot say things like that if you don’t mean them. It doesn’t matter if you’re joking, people may not take it that way. Let me know if there’s an issue. If not, please don’t joke as if I don’t know what I’m doing.”

  47. CatsAndGuitars*

    I had a similar issue with a nasty person (Dweezil) leading a department that would say very snarky, understately nasty things when I didn’t accommodate them (we did certain reviews that were necessary before a new vendor could be on boarded). We had a 7 business day SLA for these reviews, and Dweezil would always get snarky and complain when we couldn’t do them in 1 or 2 days. he even went so far as to call my team lazy. So I told my entire team that *every* single review request from Dweezil? Gets delivered in 6.9 business days. 4:50 PM on the last day. No exceptions. Doesn’t matter if you have nothing else to do. Count the paperclips. As long as Dweezil acts like a jerk, he gets to explain to his stakeholders why he’s weeks behind on onboarding these critical vendors.

    And of course, we let it get out that was why Dweezil was running into issues (because he was being a jerk). Dweezil complained, but since we were meeting the SLA, he couldn’t really whine too much. Eventually, he got enough compliants from his own stakeholders (because he was now missing *his* SLAs), that he stopped being a jerk. And magically, his turnaround time improved. problem solved, and a message got out not to mess with my team unnecessarily.

  48. TinLizi*

    Random Dude: “Haha. Just kidding.”
    Lady Mary Crawley: “Oh. The bully’s defense.” And then she walks away.

  49. Anonymous llama groomer*

    Oh, how I can relate to this. My supervisor will make (sometimes not even work-related!) comments or jokes. Often I don’t even realize it was supposed to be a joke. I’ll ask supervisor what they meant and they’ll respond “Oh that was a joke.” The number of times I have held myself back from saying “Well it wasn’t very funny” or “If you have to explain it, it’s not a good joke.”

    I’m glad OP wrote this letter and Alison responded. Now I’ll have a response ready next time supervisor makes a “joke” that actually is insulting or personal.

  50. Petty*

    My immediate intinct it to come back with “Well I guess you won’t need it that quickly becuase you’re not an real (insert department name) department, haha just kidding”

    Petty but pleasing.

  51. Granny K*

    “Rude comment…Just kidding…”
    Whatever…no one takes you seriously anyway…. Just kidding.

  52. Janet, Sower of Chaos*

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think anyone is going to overhear this and think “OP is a bad accountant,” let alone “Oh, I guess they’re not a real accounting department after all.” They’re going to think “Wow, Fergus is such a jerk.”

  53. AKchic*

    The former coworker was playing Schrodinger’s Douchebag in the workplace. It’s an insult, but it’s really a joke if the insult is going to get me in trouble; ha ha, everyone laugh. It relies heavily on the implied social contract of getting along to get along and not making waves or wanting to misinterpret their intentions. There is no mistaking the intentions. This is passive aggressive aggression. You aren’t doing what they want you to do on their timetable, so they are insulting you and adding a “ha ha” at the end to soften the blow and give plausible deniability in case you want to push back on it.
    If anyone ever tries to play the “you’re no fun” or “you have no sense of humor” when you push back, you can easily say “oh, I am fun/have a sense of humor – you just aren’t funny”. Push back on this sort of bullying behavior whenever you can.

  54. Volunteer Wrangler*

    Great wording from Alison! I work in a nonprofit and manage volunteers. I have a similar situation with colleagues who aren’t comfortable managing the volunteers in their departments and they make snarky remarks about the work ethic and skill level of the volunteers to me. I’ve responded with similar wording asking to meet with my colleagues to discuss solutions. This works and always shuts the conversation down.

  55. agnes*

    Let me add to the obnoxious list those who say all kinds of horrible things about someone and end with –well I don’t think that, that’s just what I heard somebody else say……

  56. hayling*

    This is also good advice for a family member who pulls this kind of crap. I have a family member who really pushes boundaries and just says horrible stuff to push buttons.

    Family member: [Says extremely alarming and insensitive thing]
    Me: That’s not funny, don’t joke about it
    FM: You never could take a joke
    Me: *Pointed Stare* Explain to me why’s funny?

    1. Cantahamster*

      It’s not about whether I can or can’t take a joke. It’s whether I will or won’t. Today, I won’t.

  57. Snarkastic*

    Kathy Griffin once did a bit about Marie Osmond doing this to Donny all the time. I think it was on the “For Your Consideration” album.

    1. Granny K*

      I was thinking about this bit too. I noticed after it was aired and saw an interview with Donny and Marie afterwards, she was less snarky. (I know!)

  58. RobotWithHumanHair*

    My old boss was exactly like this. Except his follow-up wasn’t “Just kidding!” but instead “I’m just playing around!”

    So demeaning and irritating. Didn’t help that he was a two-faced SOB…but I digress.

  59. Gina Linetti*

    I’d probably fire back with, “Well, I’m glad one of us thought that was funny.”

    But then, snark is my mother tongue.

  60. Cat-Soup*

    This one resonates with my own annoying coworker experience. There’s one guy I work with who greets everyone with “Working hard?” or some variation of that, and then whatever you answer he will respond with some negative remark to imply we’re not working hard at all, or we’re gabbing too much, or we’re just generally lazy. I think it’s a cultural difference, and he’s not a manager or anything so it’s not concerning in that respect–I think it’s just his default attempt at small talk or comraderie. But BOY does it drive me nuts!

    1. Anonymouse*

      I read that in my best astonished British butler voice and couldn’t stop laughing for a full 3 minutes.

  61. Chris*

    I think of the children’s story The Velvet Rabbit. I would say sadly, “Alas, we’re not a REAL accounting department, but we’d become real if only you loved us enough.”
    But the jerk probably didn’t read this during his childhood and I’d only get a reputation for being weird…

    1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      Or he’d get the joke and set your desk on fire next time you call out sick, trying to contain the Scarlet Fever germs.

  62. Is it Friday yet?*

    I’d be tempted to really play dumb as if you didn’t understand the joke at all but pretend you’re interested and press them to explain it. If they explain it, just keep playing dumb and ask them to explain it more. Make them feel dumb for telling a really terrible joke that didn’t accomplish their intended affect. Maybe even stop by later with an “I think I get it now” with a different explanation of the joke and intention than they were going for. They’ll be so over the whole conversation that they’ll hopefully think twice before doing it again.

    1. AKchic*

      Oh, just repeat it ad nauseam. Really play up the “I don’t get why it’s funny” or “I don’t get why *you* think it’s funny” or even expand on “I don’t get why you think it’s funny to imply X out loud where others could hear it… it only looks poorly on you”.

  63. Mia*

    One of my mentors taught me a powerful question: What do you mean? Or alternatively, What do you mean by that? And then let the awkward silence set in. Just let it linger, because the other person will say something for sure but it won’t be anything of substance. They will remember this encounter and won’t do it again.

  64. Caroline Bowman*

    Ooh… I’ve had versions of this in my life and here’s what you do;

    ”You aren’t a real accountant… HAHA JOKES! Thank goodness it’s Friday, right”

    ” You very often say extremely insulting things and then say that you’re joking, is it a verbal tic or are you trying to get away with being rude and insulting consciously… HAHA KIDDING! Yes, TGIF”. Then smile pleasantly and look at them in silence.

    If you can do it publicly, it works best.

  65. Essess*

    I have a relative like that (in-law). The first 3 times we ever met, every single thing he said to me was an insult, covered by “just kidding”. He is emotionally abusive to my relative and tries to be the alpha male in the room at all times. I refuse to laugh when I’m insulted. He has stated out loud to other people that I “have no sense of humor” and I always point out loudly that being deliberately insulted is not funny. I don’t smile, or pretend that I don’t hear it. I pointedly ask, “how was that supposed to be funny?”

  66. Wing Leader*

    Ugh, jerk indeed. I’ve encountered people like this and, based on my own experience, they usually really do think it’s funny. If you get upset or offended then you’re just a “party pooper” or you don’t “get it.” These people will dig their heels in and INSIST that IT IS FUNNY, but it’s perfectly fine for you to shut it down. You’re not overreacting, OP. I think some lighthearted joking is fine, but insults disguised as jokes are not funny.

  67. lnelson in Tysons*

    Making mental notes of some of these responses for future use, should I need them.
    Had a SVP once (I know that I have complained about him here in various comment sections before) who either didn’t think before he spoke or didn’t care how he came across.
    But if he was called out for whatever annoying/insulting thing that he said, he never denied saying it. Just that you misunderstood him. “That report is stupid. I should replace you with a high school student” really meant, you can do better. Saying to the only woman in the office “There are a bunch of dirty dishes in the sink” meant “I am sorry that we are a bunch of inconsiderate male jerks who are too lazy to clean up after ourselves.” and so many other examples.
    It was a relief to be laid off vs having to report to him directly after a round of RIFs

  68. Ina Lummick*

    Oh I just had this the other day where coworkers don’t see the value in a customer service team.

    Yet they always suggest ways for us to improve our relationship with fee-earners (but don’t think of how they could improve their relationship with us). Maybe they could respect our jobs and not treat us as PAs.

  69. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

    Hey OP. Your former colleague sounds like a complete prat.

    Giving him feedback face to face made it easier for him to snark you like that. By emailing him instead you could probably have taken away the opportunity. He probably wouldn’t have actually replied in writing with his stupid not funny joke. And it would have been much more difficult for him to bring up it up in passing.

    If you had discussed this with your manager you could also have said “You’ve raised some concerns about our delivery before and if necessary I’ll set up a meeting with Team Manager so that we can clarify our submission process and turnaround times. Please let me me know.”

    I’m pretty sure that would be the end of that.

  70. Leela*

    OP I’m so sorry! I had a similar situation at my last job, where our lead would say something incredibly insulting, usually very incorrect or technically correct but with no nuance/context, and then go “haha nothing but love, nothing but love” and I pulled him aside once and said “hey, you insult us a lot and then follow it with that which I think you’re using to soften it, do you need to talk to us about our performance?” and he acted like I was craaaaaaazy. Played very innocent like he had no idea what I was talking about and oh my god why would we ever take it that way, and then went right back to doing it. I went to grandboss several times and then great-grand boss and finally the director of the department which did result in him being talked to and eventually fired for that and several other things he was doing.

    My guess would be they know exactly what they’re doing as you suspect, and the kind of person who would proceed that way isn’t really the one who’s going to magically change and start giving you real constructive feedback where appropriate, I think the best case you’d see here is that they’d stop because they felt pressured to but it’s not the same as doing the internal work to actually be a better teammate/person. If I were you and this came up again, I’d document it like crazy, use what Alison said above, and go above if you’re at all able, framing it like “I have no idea what my goals or performance actually are when someone keeps saying they’re joking when they talk about us, and honestly the insults are bringing down morale”. A good person in charge would take that seriously!

  71. LMM*

    Keeping this one bookmarked. I run a website for a nonprofit, and my small team does some really great writing. Recently someone from another department emailed us asking if we could put an alert up on the site, then ended her email by saying “I know Gloria had something about this in her article, but everyone knows no one is reading your stuff till the very end!”

    I really, really wanted to be snarky but ended up saying nothing. But now I wish I’d responded by saying it wasn’t funny.

  72. Pink Geek*

    “Did I say the invoice would be ready in 2 days? I meant 4. Ha! Just kidding!”

    Allison’s approach is clearly better but it sure is tempting to turn it around on them.

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