Reader Q &A: A Foot-in-Her-Mouth Friend


Hi Dr. Levine,

I'm having (and always seem to have) fractured friendships. (Great phrase, by the way!) I'm one of those people who is always trying to make a joke and therefore throw out a lot of one liners when the opportunity arises. Unfortunately, sometimes the jokes unintentionally hurt people's feelings, and sometimes those people are my friends.

The problem for me is that I don't even realize that what I'm saying comes across as mean. Like, literally, I have no clue! (Sounds strange coming from a 47-year-old woman, I know.) I only realize it later when the friend who've I've hurt, is visibly mad or not speaking to me. And even then, I have to wrack my brain to figure out what it was I said this time that pissed them off.

While I have been trying to work on not saying mean stuff by mistake, it's been very difficult since I don't even know that I'm doing it. But, the thing that annoys me about the whole situation (other than the frustration of missing whatever brain part that would make me know better) is that when it happens, the people take it so personally. I honestly don't mean anything by the jokes and certainly am not trying to be mean. In fact, the idea of me purposely being mean to anyone makes me cringe as I would never in a million years want to hurt anyone, let alone the people who are closest to me.

While my friends know this about me, it seems that it just doesn't matter; they get offended. Personally, I think that anyone can become offended by anything if they want to, and I just wish that people would lighten up a bit. (They don't like to hear that, of course, and it just makes me even more insensitive!)

I am also frustrated that one bad joke that comes across as hurtful can seem to nullify hundreds of nice things that I may have said or done. It doesn't seem fair. When I am confronted with the fact that I said something mean, I do apologize and explain that I didn't mean anything hurtful, but that often seems to only go so far, especially if it's happened more than once :(

In general, I am a quiet person, and I think that's partially from years of unintentionally pissing people off. (It's easier to just keep my mouth shut.) I would like to be able to just have conversations and not put my stupid foot in my mouth, but I'm not sure I'm capable of it. If you have any tips or tricks for this, I'm all ears.

In the meantime, I've just had a run-in with a very good friend/colleague and am feeling awful. I'd hate for her to give up on me, but I also know she's tired of feeling hurt by my insensitive comments. I was at a conference with her and the speaker had not received his drink ticket for the cocktail reception. My friend said to another person within the small group in which we were standing, "I can give him mine." And I jokingly said, "Oh sure, suck up to the speaker!"

And that was pretty much the end of it. I could tell later she was annoyed at me, but I wasn't quite positive if that joke was the reason or if it was something else. We work together and she barely spoke to me the next day, and the day after that (today) I finally said something. She said she was through being nice to me as she didn't want to be seen as "kiss ass" since I apparently thought of her as that.

SIGH, I do see now how these kinds of statements come across, and would definitely like to just stfu! Any advice you can give would be appreciated!



Dear Foot-in-Your-Mouth,

If you know that your jokes often come off as mean-spirited, you need to be extra cautious and censor yourself before you blurt out something you'll later regret. Whether you realize it or not, you have control over what you say. And if you've already offended someone once, you should be walking on eggshells the next time you encounter them.

Some people are more sensitive to being the butt of a joke than others, and it sounds like your friend/colleague may have over-reacted. At this point, it might be wise to keep your distance from her, of course remaining cordial and polite, and maybe she will get over it. You could even write her a short note of apology saying that you never intended to hurt her feelings.

I'm sure you realize that you can control what YOU say---although you can't control other people's reactions. Therefore, you are the one that needs to change. In the future, if you blurt out a possibly-offensive joke and regret it after it leaves your lips, perhaps you could diffuse your friend's anger by saying something like, "I hope I haven't offended you," giving your friend the opportunity to get any negative reaction off her chest right away.

You mentioned that you are, by nature, a quiet person and I'm wondering whether you feel anxious with people and are using humor to diffuse your tension. Having a quick wit and good sense of humor is a gift because it is a powerful tool for connecting with people. But you need to hone your talent and channel it in positive ways so that it enhances your friendships rather than fractures them.

I hope this helps.

My best,


*DISCLOSURE - This and most questions are often edited lightly for the sake of brevity and clarity.

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