The internet has been abuzz since the 94th Academy Awards Ceremony, with people struggling to make sense of the altercation they saw on stage. Of course, the public nature of the incident makes it pretty compelling. What happened at the Oscars was unprecedented. But it struck a chord for something deeper than sensationalism. 

Most of us know the deep discomfort and vulnerability that comes with being witness to a joke in poor taste. Many of us also know the vulnerability of being the target of that humor. It can feel like its own form of violence.

Whether you’re the target of the joke or not, distasteful humor affects all of us. It can feel like there’s no way to respond. You react, you don’t react — you speak up, you don’t speak up. Is there a “right” way to recover from seeing one person hurt another — physically, emotionally, or otherwise?

It’s challenging enough when you’re among people you trust — but when you have an audience (no matter how large or small) the pressure to respond becomes even more intense. What are the implications in public — or in the workplace — when people are expected to “take a joke?” When we smooth things over for the sake of keeping the peace, are we sacrificing psychological safety? Not just for ourselves but for others?

When joking isn’t a joke

The common defense to a poorly-received comment is usually, “It was just a joke.” The statement implies that a joke — since it’s meant to be funny — can’t also be offensive. As comedian and host of The Daily Show Trevor Noah explains, “Just because something is a joke doesn’t mean it can’t be something else as well.” 

Calling something a joke doesn’t grant it immunity from offense. And it doesn’t mean that the joker doesn’t bear any responsibility for the impact of his words. Words matter and have consequences.

But generally, we put the burden of diffusion on the recipient, or target, of the joke. If it doesn’t go over well — especially when there’s an audience. We feel compelled to smooth it over and keep the peace, lest someone think that we’re thin-skinned.

No one wants to be thought of as humorless or overly sensitive. Moreover, revealing the pain of the insult can open the door to other triggers and hurts — some of which we may not fully understand. Rather than let someone know that they’ve hurt us, reveal our vulnerability, or risk further harm to ourselves or loved ones, we take the joke. We act like these comments don’t bother us at all. It’s the safest path.

For some groups, learning to react — or better yet, how to not react to a joke is a survival skill. Often, people that are the minority (or underrepresented) in their professions deal with an onslaught of humor and microaggressions — all directed at their otherness. Conversely, an individual may be embraced by the group as the exception and expected to laugh along at jokes focused on others who share their race or background. Either way, it can make you feel exposed and vulnerable in a way that makes just showing up to the office a heroic act of bravery and self-control.