I Was Just Kidding


If you have to say that you were “just kidding”, you probably already failed.

Just kidding is the afterthought or disclaimer we add to statements that reflect how we really feel deep down but are too afraid to say. I should know, I used to use it a lot.

Why We Joke or Use Sarcasm

I used both sarcasm and inappropriate humor way too much as I was growing up and even early in my professional career. I used to call it a survival tool in my family. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that it just held me back.

Both sarcasm and inappropriate humor are learned responses. We use them when we don’t feel safe to express the truth directly.

I was particularly big on using sarcasm. We use sarcasm in situations where we feel a combination of two emotions – anger and fear. Sarcasm typical comes across as a joke or comment that could have multiple interpretations. We say it as a joke because we are afraid. Otherwise, we would just come out and say what we feel.

Last week that I was on a call with someone who made a statement and then followed it up with “just kidding”. Rather than let it slide, I interrupted the conversation to address the comment. It wound up derailing the call.

That experience prompted me to revisit this concept. It is something that I struggled with and perhaps that is why I wrote about it in my 2012 book, Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers: The People Skills You Need to Achieve Outstanding Results.

Self-Awareness is a Critical Emotional Intelligence Skill

As leaders – and we all are leaders BTW – we need to be aware of what is happening with us. Emotional self-awareness is a critical skill for everyone but especially for leaders.

Recognizing our use of inappropriate humor and sarcasm for what it is can he helpful. It is a key aspect of self awareness. You can think of inappropriate humor and sarcasm as a red flag that something is going on inside you.

Here is what I had to say on the topic of Emotional Red Flags in my 2012 book. I have by no means mastered this topic but I have come a long way :). Progress, not perfection.

Emotional Red Flags

Another tool that can help us be more self-aware is emotional red flags. As I learned about emotional intelligence and about myself, I became aware of ways in which I acted that were less than helpful. I learned to recognize behaviors that were early symptoms of my own emotional problems. I called these emotional red flags.

These emotional red flags helped me increase my self-awareness and enabled me to to identify and deal with the underlying emotional problems. As I began to recognize the symptoms of these red flags, I was empowered to make better choices and change the outcomes. Here are six emotional red flags that you can use to gain insights into your emotions.

1. Inappropriate Humor

We would all probably agree that humor is good, especially on projects. I used to consider myself very funny and believed it to be one of my strengths. In reality, I was using humor in indirect and inappropriate ways because of my fear. I was afraid to tell the truth and make my point directly, so I would make a joke instead. As an example, consider when someone showed up late to a project team meeting. Instead of confronting the issue directly, I would make a joke like “looks like the trains didn’t wait for you today.” I was angry that they did not show up on time. Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of my anger, so I did not voice it directly. Or, I was not comfortable expressing my anger, so I hid it. In either case, my use of humor was indirect and not effective at addressing the behavior of my team member.

My automatic joking was a way of masking my true feelings of anger or fear. That was a clue that I was not aware of my emotions. Now before I make a joke, I ask myself “Why do I feel the need to make a joke right now? What emotion am I feeling?” Most likely I feel angry, sad, or scared. When angry, I may choose to single someone out and try to make fun of them. Or if I feel sad, I may try to draw attention to myself or get affirmed by others with a cheap laugh. When scared, I may make a joke about someone to shift the attention from me. In each of these cases, I need to look beyond the humor to determine the underlying emotion.

2. Use of Sarcasm

The use of sarcasm is closely related to inappropriate humor. Perhaps sarcasm is just humor taken to an extreme. We use sarcasm for the same reasons as inappropriate humor—we don’t want to say something directly. As an example of sarcasm, consider when you say to your boss “everyone thinks the new expense approval policy is a GREAT idea” and then you tack on “just kidding.” The “just kidding” is the exclamation point that makes sarcasm and inappropriate humor easy to spot. When you say “just kidding,” you are saying “don’t get mad at me for saying what I really feel.”

Adapted from Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers: The People Skills You Need to Achieve Outstanding Results, AMACOM (2012)

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By Anthony Mersino

Anthony Mersino is the founder of Vitality Chicago, an Agile Training and Coaching firm devoted to helping Teams THRIVE and Organizations TRANSFORM. He is also the author of two books, Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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