5 Easy Ways to Deal with Sexist (or any kind of -ist) Humour at Work or Anywhere Really!

Angry Confused Woman with Hands on Hips needing Comebacks for Sexist Remarks

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a sexist, racist or any other kind of stereotypical joke or comment? I would imagine your answer is a resounding “Yes”! And how many times have you heard someone make a joke that insults someone else—but not been sure what to say? Well, this article is for you!

It seems like it’s finally becoming acceptable to speak up and call it out. Not that it’s easy yet, but the mood is shifting…

Which is great, because none of us are safe from discrimination until EVERYone is respected as an equal—no matter your race, gender, sexual preference/orientation, religion, size, ability, age etc.

Consider that as long as discrimination is acceptable towards one type of human—then it can easily shift onto another.

And this means that it’s important to speak up (when safe to do so) when someone makes an inappropriate comment or joke. So in this article we’re going to take a look at specifically how to do that and some of the things to watch out for.

In the end anti-black, anti-female, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing: anti-humanism. Shirley Chisholm

In this article you’ll find:

  1. Why jokes are more damaging than they seem…
  2. It’s so important to speak up
  3. But we need to have a plan!
  4. Yes, it can be hard to speak up!
  5. 5 Specific Ways to Respond to Inappropriate Remarks & Jokes
  6. Wrap-up

Jokes are more damaging than they seem…

Have you noticed how the worst sexists and racists get away with it—over and over again—because it’s said with a laugh, a nod and a wink?

Growing up, I remember bristling at sexist jokes which were common in England at that time. I would get defensive and angrily say something, and mostly just got laughed at—or told I was too sensitive: “It’s just a joke!”.

But it isn’t, is it?

Conveniently for the speaker, when something is said as a joke, it makes it much harder to speak up without being seen as over-reacting.

Jokes which target a particular type of human are a crafty and subtle way to put people down in a “socially acceptable” manner. Humour literally “softens” the blow, and this reduces the perception that the speaker is being discriminatory.

And this makes jokes and offhand remarks a great way to make others feel smaller. They can embarrass, shame and humiliate. And they leave the joke teller (and those who share in the joke) ‘one-up’ on whoever is being made fun of.

Sometimes it’s unintentional

Not every joke is intended to provoke or discriminate. Some people just aren’t aware of the harm they’re doing.

In fact we’ve likely all done it at some point. For example, as a child I used to tell “Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman” jokes where the Irish person is always the stupid one, and the English person is the clever one. These jokes were so common that it didn’t occur to me that these were both insulting and racist.

So it’s important to speak up

When we allow sexist, racist or any kind of -ist jokes at work (or in our society), it changes the culture. These jokes increase the tolerance everyone has for discrimination—and nudges the needle of prejudice closer to acceptability.

So when we don’t say anything, we are complicit both in the insult given and we’re helping the speaker maintain their “one-up” status.

We need to speak up with care

Unlike decades or centuries ago, many of us can now ‘safely’ speak up without fear of death or violence. However, we do need to be careful that we don’t make a situation worse—for ourselves or someone else.

So if there is a threat of violence or severe consequences like a job loss or reprisals, the best option may be to stay quiet or find a different way to manage the situation.

And we need to have a plan!

First, know that you’re allowed to be upset by jokes or discriminatory remarks—whether made directly towards you, or to someone in your hearing. It’s not OK.

And now we need to get clever.

We need to get better at handling these situations—both for ourselves and for others.

Because all too often we get side-swiped: too surprised or afraid to respond in the moment. Then afterwards, we sit at home wishing we’d said something.

So it’s important to at least have a “go to” response and a strategy or two up our sleeves!

And we’ll get to that in a minute! But first, we don’t always need to publicly speak up. Sometimes it’s more effective to speak to someone privately.

Remember that shaming is an unkind way to teach people new things: if you can speak to someone privately—and you think they’ll listen—this a chance to permanently change minds (rather than just embarrassing someone into changing their behaviour).

Responding Publicly or Privately—an important considerationBlack woman has an idea

When to speak to someone privately

The time to consider a private chat is when you’re dealing with someone who is:

  • Usually well-intentioned and/or
  • A different generation or culture
  • Thoughtless, uneducated or unaware
  • Someone you know well and like

When to say something publicly

And it’s more important to call someone out publicly when someone who:

  • Frequently makes unpleasant remarks or jokes
  • Is brash, unashamed or unrepentant
  • Knows better—but seems to enjoy stirring things up

Yes, it can be hard to speak up!

When we speak up, there’s always a risk that we’ll become the target (if we weren’t already). We might get called killjoy, boring, uptight or over-sensitive.

A couple of responses to this are to:

  1. Deadpan (have a totally serious face) and say something like, “Well, it must be true if you’re saying so.”
  2. Calmly and humorously say, “Well, look who’s being sensitive/uptight now?!”

But speaking up is especially hard for women and minorities.

Women have been socialised to stay quiet: smile, don’t rock the boat, don’t make others feel bad (even if they’re doing a ‘bad’ thing). In short, don’t damage relationships…

And people who are marginalised or in the minority may have been bullied, shamed or experienced reprisals.

This is all part of a system that allows discrimination to continue.

And I think we should be angry about this.

So why not use our anger as fuel?

I don’t mean getting publicly angry.

Instead I’m talking about using your healthy inner anger at the injustice as the fuel (the push you need) to calmly and courageously speak up.

Remember that when we don’t speak up, we’re unintentionally giving the speaker our ‘seal of approval’ and normalising the behaviour.

And be an ally for others!

Being an ally for others is a fantastic way to embody Fierce Kindness and make a difference in the world.

Because it’s hard for the person being made fun of to speak up without seeming defensive, angry or “unable to take a joke”.

And this goes beyond gender. It’s easiest (and most powerful) to call out people who are like us.

So calling someone out has the most impact when, for example:

  • A man calls out another man for sexism.
  • A White person calls out another White person for racist remarks.
  • Someone young or slim calls out another young or slim person for ageism or sizeism.
  • Someone able-bodied calls out someone who is also able-bodied for ableist or patronising remarks.

I love this quote from an article1 by David G. Smith & W. Brad Johnson who wrote Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace:

One should not feel ashamed about having privilege but instead use it to deconstruct barriers.

Here are 5 Ways to Respond to those Inappropriate Remarks and JokesBlack woman has an idea

Each situation will be unique: who’s involved, the power dynamics, how bad the comment or joke was, how intentional it was, where it happens, how safe you feel—and more.

Remember that it’s always your choice to:

  • Respond—or not
  • Respond right away—or wait until you’re calmer, have a plan or are feeling braver!
  • Respond privately or publicly

1) The Awkward Pause

Use when/with: Anyone. In particular someone senior or in a position of power over you (like a boss or a client in a sales meeting). Where you don’t know the speaker that well eg. a client, colleague or a friend’s partner.

If you are one-on-one with someone, the easiest response is to simply STOP talking. Visibly PAUSE whatever you are doing or saying.

Don’t react in any other way (ie. don’t judge and don’t engage).

Remember that the need to be part of a tribe—being connected to each other—runs deep within human beings. By withdrawing our “engagement” with someone we send a powerful message. The hope is that they’ll feel awkward and avoid creating that situation again.

1b) If you’re in a larger group, you could add some body language like:

  • Frown a little—like you’re confused. This is not a critical frown, instead crease your forehead slightly like you’re concentrating hard and thinking about what they just said.
  • Lightly shake your head.
  • Widen your eyes or raise your eyebrows in surprise. You can exaggerate this and make it humorous too.

Consider that it’s likely other people are also feeling uncomfortable. By doing this you reflect their inner discomfort back to them—letting other people know they’re not alone and subtly signalling to everyone else that it’s not OK.

1c) Another slight variation is to change the subject:

This works in a group or one-on-one.

Simply say out loud something like: Erm. So, moving on… as if you’re embarrassed on their behalf.

This way you let the speaker know that you didn’t like what was said—without causing a big ‘situation’.

2) Wonder Out Loud

Use when/with: In the workplace. Especially useful if you are genuinely unsure or can’t put your finger on why it’s bothering you.

If you’re wondering if a joke or comment is inappropriate, it probably is. And other people are likely wondering the same.

So another way to combat discriminatory statements is to get curious! Be unsure—but do it out loud.

  • Ask the speaker—or the room in general: “Is that INappropriate?”
  • Make sure you have a quizzical look on your face—you’re just pondering aloud!

This works because when we ask a question, our brains cannot help but think about it. We love to figure things out. And that will apply to everyone who hears you ask the question—including the joker themself.

  • TIP: Be sure to ask if it’s INappropriate. Because if you ask if it was APPropriate people will think about all the ways it’s appropriate instead!

3) Dismiss or Disapprove

Use when/with: Repeat offenders, in the workplace, in larger groups of people.

3a) Be Dismissive

We too can use humour to get our point across—and seem less confrontational:

  • Wow. Did you just say that out loud?
  • Did you just say that in the workplace?
  • Say, “Wow. Are we 12 again?” Then look around at other people with a ‘some of us really need to grow up’ look.
  • If you can carry it off : That was way uncool dude!

3b) Simple outright disapproval

  • That wasn’t funny and made me really uncomfortable.
  • I found that disrespectful/mean/patronising/racist etc.
  • That sounded discriminatory and is inappropriate.
  • That is an outdated stereotype that I find offensive.
  • Being patronising/disrespectful about others is not my type of humour.

3c) “Dislike” or Thumbs Down

An easy way to call out someone in the online space is to click ‘dislike’ or a thumbs down reaction to what they’ve posted. You may just start a conversation or inspire others to do the same.

4) Pretend you don’t get it

Use when/with: In the workplace. In a group (whether friends, co-workers or something else). With a boss—especially if they’re of an older generation.

I love this strategy—and there are many ways to do this. But the key is to ask questions that put the speaker on the spot and get them to explain the joke or comment.

Begin by offering a blank look. Now here are a few options for you to play with:

4a) Someone makes an inappropriate joke:

  • I don’t get it. Could you explain?
  • Why is that funny?
  • I’m not sure I understand…

4b) If they’ve made a remark about someone else:

  • Why is that interesting?
  • Repeat the important or offensive word or phrase and look confused: Weird? Hot? Frigid? Taking advantage?
  • Hang on, what are you saying about _____?

Then when they respond, keep it light:

  • Hmm. Maintain blank look.
  • Appear confused: I still don’t get it.
  • If they’re a different age to you, you could say something like: I guess it must be a generational thing…
  • Or keep up your blank curious look and don’t say anything at all.

5) Assume best intentions

Use when/with: In the workplace. In a group of friends.

Most people are basically well-intentioned. Consider that they may be unaware, feeling insecure, just want to tell a ‘funny’ joke—or maybe get in with the ‘in’ crowd by making observations about others.

If so we can be kind and assume best intentions. Try saying something like:

  • I’m not sure you’re aware how that sounded…
  • I get that we all need a laugh right now—but I think we should stay away from jokes that make fun of _____
  • I’m sure you didn’t mean it, but I found that joke offensive.
  • I know you’re not a bigot, but that joke/comment certainly made you sound like one…

Wrap-up Fierce Kindness Logo

Equality often isn’t understood (never mind voluntarily given) by those who are privileged or in charge. Instead we must demand and require it for ourselves—and those around us.

We must remember that jokes and offhand remarks can be a form of bullying. To speak up we need to develop a thicker skin, and we must learn to worry less about what people think of us—especially if they are a bully.

We can tap into our natural and healthy anger and use this as the fuel to provide the courage to speak up.

And we must have a plan—one or more ‘go to’ strategies that we can confidently deploy as needed.

Finally, use Fierce Kindness to be strong and courageous when you need to be—but also hold onto your compassion. Because as always we must be the change we wish to see.

I hope this article has given you a few ideas for the next time a discriminatory remark or joke is made in your hearing. Remember to:

  • Stay safe.
  • Be ready. It can be hard to respond on the fly—so have a favourite phrase or response ready to go.
  • Start small. If you need to, begin with 1) The Awkward Pause and then work up to something more challenging!
Change the world. Start with you!

So what tips and clever comebacks do you have to share? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

If you liked this, you may also like:

Reference and Further Reading

Quote from a blog post on the Gender and the Economy blog about David G. Smith & W. Brad Johnson’s book.

Image of Shocked White woman with hands on hips in pink dress by benzoix via freepik


  1. chanel lyons

    hi Emma Louise!!!!

    i really appreciated this article. nice to have a repertoire of responses on the go! in situations like these one can find themselves stuck at rude comments and jokes. i will also look within and see where i may do this. thank you for keeping us aware as we are in 2024. i really enjoyed it. you re a rock star! i look forward to your newsletters every single week and for the last 2 years as a coach you have aided in innumerable ways. i was just able to order the megapack about a few weeks ago and am deeply satisfied with my purchase. not to mention all of the free tools you offer. i love it all. keep doing what you re doing. in times of overwhelm and juggling it all, i can find quiet in your newsletters weekly. thank you.

    • Emma-Louise Elsey

      Hi Chanel!!! So glad you found this article with helpful, and so awesome that you find all our resources so helpful 🙂 That is truly a joy to hear and thank-you for making my day <3 Love, Emma-Louise


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