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The last 6 months I have been working in a small company that has a nice and relaxed work environment; the teamwork is good and we sometimes joke on each other as in "water-cooler" moments. One of my coworkers (call him John, 3 years working there) is the one that makes most of the jokes, saying that it "helps the team to relax and prevent work-related stress".

The most recurrent kind of jokes John makes are those that, in a sarcastic manner, put in doubt your technical and professional skills, but actually mean the opposite. For example he may say: "you are a terrible programmer", when he actually wanted to convey the message: "you are a good programmer".

Some days ago we were in a critical work situation: John had some data analysis due that day and wanted to use a program I developed to make them instead, without ever having used or studied the program before (which is also not ready for production yet).

This led us to some strong arguing about the program not working at all, but after explaining him how to correctly use it the problem stopped escalating. Immediately after this (still both a bit tense) he threw one of those jokes at me, saying: "Still, I doubt this is going to work when it is finished..."


In another situation perhaps this joke would have been "tolerable" (no sexual or racist content), but in this case it sounded more like an insult rather than sarcasm. Some seconds after saying it John laughed, so I then knew he was only joking... However, this could have started another argument or escalated the problem even more. After some days of thinking it over and over, here are the questions I have:

What would be a polite way of telling John to refrain from joking during critical moments?

Is there something that could be done to prevent these kind of jokes from turning into a negative situation, in critical and non-critical moments?

I don't want to be a party pooper and cut all jokes out.

  • Does he only joke like this with people he respects or with anyone and everyone? – Frank FYC Aug 3 '17 at 17:48
  • He jokes with almost everyone, however it is more frequent with coworkers. He even sometimes jokes with his boss but never this kind of jokes – DarkCygnus Aug 3 '17 at 17:51
  • So... you're okay with such jokes, the timing or appropriateness was just a bit off? You really can't expect anyone's timing to be flawless. You should decide whether you want to (try to) put a stop to the jokes altogether or tolerate a few questionable ones. Or are you not okay with the sarcastic jokes at all? – Dukeling Aug 3 '17 at 18:20
  • @Dukeling is not that I am 100% ok with them, however I do tolerate them... that is sometimes I ignore them, sometimes I laugh at them... but this one was more offensive – DarkCygnus Aug 3 '17 at 18:27
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    Next time he does this during a critical moment, look him in the eye with a stern expression and simply say bad timing, John. If he has any moral compass he will get the hint and realise the timing was inappropriate and will consider his words more carefully in the future, without changing his attitude completely. – Darren H Aug 3 '17 at 21:24
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If you just plain don't find his jokes funny, try and ignore them. If they actively bother you (and they sure seem to) I would recommend talking to him when neither of you are unduly stressed. If it were me I would say something like,

You know, normally I like laughing with you, but when things start to get hectic or stressful I sometimes get rubbed the wrong way by your jokes. This is about me more than your jokes, but I'd still appreciate it if you could lay off when we're under pressure. Thanks.

As to your second question... there's probably no quick solution. In a perfect world he'd be able to read a room and pick up on when it's okay to make jokes and what kind of jokes are appropriate for the situation. But it sounds like that's just not the kind of guy John is. Unfortunately, I think people are just going to have individual discussions with John when he crosses their boundaries and he's going to have to begin learning how to tailor his jokes to his audience(s).

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    Thanks for the advice. I edited that second question and added a better phrased version of it, in case you wish to look at it and edit your helpful answer. – DarkCygnus Aug 3 '17 at 18:48
  • Thanks! Sorry that I misunderstood. I altered my answer. I hope it helps! – user75007 Aug 3 '17 at 23:32
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Communication is key here. I would talk to that person privately and express that you can tolerate the jokes, but there is a time and place for everything. On a normal day, it's fine, but in a situation where there is high stress, then it can escalate to other arguments and cause even more stress.

For future team members, that's something they will have to figure out for themselves. John probably won't change how he jokes around in general, but future team members can have their own conversations with him.

  • "On a normal day, it's fine, but in a situation where there is high stress, then it can escalate to other arguments and cause even more stress." - yes that is what I explained in the question. The bad timing made the joke more harmful that probably intended. I agree with you that this should be handled personally with John – DarkCygnus Aug 3 '17 at 18:50
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I find that taking what he says literally can work wonders. I learned this by accident. I have Asperger's syndrome and have to work at understanding sarcasm, so when I'm busy or tired, I just don't get it.

However, this actually led to someone dropping their efforts to make sarcastic comments around me.

If you take what they say literally, like when they say "You're a bad coder", you say "REALLY?!" and look a bit confused, it's not fun for them any longer. If you can play dumb, it works rather well. If not, just ignore it.

  • I see what you mean, good suggestion. Is it an issue that I previously acknowledged and "understood" those jokes, and now I play dumb and suddenly stop understanding them? – DarkCygnus Aug 3 '17 at 20:22
  • @GrayCygnus That might be a bit of an issue, but you can always pick and choose when to take this approach to ease into it or highlight particularly inappropriate comments. – Dukeling Aug 3 '17 at 21:26

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