Skip to content

When Your Laugh = Someone’s Anguish

I was teaching a business writing workshop recently when someone teased another participant about being a Southerner (someone from the Southern part of the United States). The seemingly good-natured wisecracks were about Southern food and language. I stopped the comments politely by bringing us back to the business writing skill we were discussing.

On our class break I happened to be alone in the break room with the person who was the target of the teasing. I had forgotten the incident, but he told me that he was sick of being teased about being a Southerner. He said people regularly made jokes about his Southern accent, the words he used, the foods he liked, and other aspects of Southern culture. He felt they implied that Southerners were stupid.

I bet the person who made light of Southern cuisine and language would be shocked to know he was causing his coworker's pain. He was just joking, right?

Could you or someone on your team be the joker causing pain? We often don't think about Southerners, Easterners, Midwesterners, Europeans, men, women, mothers, baby-boomers, and others as people who might not enjoy our teasing. But if others are making the same kinds of remarks, our coworkers may feel badgered, bruised, or betrayed.

This blog is about business writing, so how can I tie this important topic to writing? Well, I am certain that teasing happens in writing too. Here are some guidelines to consider:

  1. Avoid making generalizations or suggestions about a group or type of employees, such as "The engineers on this project are a bunch of nerds" or "You know those Gen Yers think they know how to do everything."
  2. Never make up or use a nickname that might be considered a slur. Use only nicknames people have chosen for themselves, and use them only with permission.
  3. When someone says a comment is not funny to them (in person or in writing), believe them. It's not funny. It's hurtful.

Please add more guidelines or examples. I would especially like ideas about "joking" and writing.

Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

9 comments on “When Your Laugh = Someone’s Anguish”

  • New York and New Jersey accents seem to be fair game, especially with the popularity of “The Sopranos” and mere existing of the show “Jersey Shore”, among others. Well, I’m from the Jersey Shore and I don’t find it funny. I recently had an opportunity to influence vendor selection for a project with a $100,000 budget. One of the vendors threw in one too many fuggedaboutits in their sample script and they were eliminated from the bidding process.

  • Anne, thank you for that powerful example.

    Please allow me to translate “fuggedaboutits” for those who aren’t familiar with the accent. It means the phrase “forget about it” made plural.


  • I believe this sort of joking comes in three categories:

    1.) Companionable: This assumes a very close bond between two people, and it communicates affection.

    2.) Uncomfortable: Some jokers cover their own discomfort by poking fun at others. In a business setting, this can be very revealing. Usually, the joking itself is best ignored.

    3.) Demeaning: In effect, this is bullying, and I don’t think it’s ever worth suffering through for the sake of “politeness.” Better to either cut ties (as the previous commenter did) or matter-of-factly confront the perpetrator with a reminder of appropriate behavior.

    That’s the view from here. (My roots are a mix of Southern and Northern, by the way.) Thanks for bringing up such an interesting topic!

  • Hi, Lester. Thanks for your analysis. You may be absolutely right.

    I worry about a blurring of the “companionable” category. I would not be surprised if the aggressor in the writing class considered himself companionable, even though his colleague felt worn down and mistreated.

    It’s always good to hear from you.


  • Well, I’m totally agree with Lynn and Lester as well.

    Here in Pakistan most of the time we see “Uncomfortable” category. Many writers make fun of others, just to secure themselves.

    But hopefully I’ll avoid to do so.

    It is very good to bring such an issue under discussion. Thank you very much every body.

  • Both gentlemen touch on a very timely topic: cultural awareness of the target audience.

    Superiors may use jokes as a way to exert power (bullying/demeaning subordinates)
    or equals may use them as a way to find some sort of connection.

    This actually happens a lot when people write business e-mails.
    Jokes–either verbal or business–usually fall in the realm of being cliche–we’ve heard it all before–just as Lester stated.

    For example,the “joking” omission of a person’s title and/or first name in an e-mail could create problems in a collaborative work environment. Thinking about someone who used the military form of address generally aimed at lower enlisted personnel. He used only my last name in a written e-mail that went out to higher-ups in an attempt to demean me recently. I work in academia–totally different culture from the military.

    Ironically, the person in question is from a non-North American culture where honorifics are even more highly valued than in the U.S.

    Thanks,Lynn,for such a user-friendly forum.

  • Lynn, my Dad was a true southern gentleman, so I have a special place in my heart for the topic.

    Whether it’s in writing or social interacting, generalizations about any class or type of person are a minefield. With writing, you have the added risk of someone “taking it the wrong way.”

    I have seen some sweeping generalizations online. Perhaps the “be yourself” thinking of social media influences these oh-oh moments. People write before they think.

    A blog talking about marketing on Facebook said you wouldn’t be crazy to market on Facebook if you provide products or services to postmenopausal women because women over the age of 55 make up the fastest-growing Facebook segment.

    One commenter took exception when she thought the post was written by the male owner of the blog. Interestingly, she apologized when she realized it was a guest post by a female.

    Personally, I thought the example was poorly conceived (perhaps because I am one of those “over 55” women). I would like to think marketers look at the “over 55 women” for something other than being postmenopausal.

    There are blogs that ridicule others who they feel demonstrate their social media and technical ignorance. If I’m one of those people, why would I want to work with you?

    It’s one thing when you make yourself the butt of the joke. For example, “As a postmenopausal woman over the age of 55, there are things I am interested in that my 20-year-old niece could care less about.” Now I’m the one putting that tag on me.

    The good news is with so much of our business in writing due to social media, we can always edit before sending-something I wish I had with certain conversations.


  • Hi, Marva and Cathy. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    Marva, I appreciate your example of being called by your last name and what that signified. I have not had that experience but I can imagine what it felt like.

    Cathy, I love your wish for an edit feature on spoken conversations. That would be a priceless feature! I also like the point you raised about not wanting to work with people who ridicule people like you. That topic is worth much more discussion.


Comments are closed.