How Do I Take Back a Joke That Offended Someone? Ask Harry and Louise

Today’s letter writer seeks advice for getting back in the good graces of a colleague who took offense to a political joke.

Dear Harry and Louise,

I stepped in it, and now I can’t get out of it. I’m very much on the liberal side of most issues. I was surrounded by some colleagues at the home of our boss, and I made a joke about George W. Bush that made everyone laugh except a young woman who was recently hired. She was clearly offended by my joke and walked away with a disappointed look on her face. I had no intention of hurting anyone’s feelings with my joke. Now this colleague avoids talking to me and even looking at me at work. She doesn’t work directly with me on projects, but it’s a small enough company that the tension is noticeable when we are in the same room. I don’t like the idea of her hating me or avoiding me.

So how do you take back a joke that offended someone?

Contrite Coworker

• • •


Oh, please.

This recent hire won’t last very long in Washington–or most places besides maybe Lynchburg–unless she can let cocktail party patter evaporate once the drinking is done, especially if the joke is about politics or a politician. If we can’t poke fun at one politician or another, why be in Washington?

As Louise well knows, I have the nasty habit of provoking people who are easily offended. I enjoy poking around their vulnerable sides. But let’s leave my juvenile side where it belongs–in my past.

If you care about this new coworker, take her out for coffee, perhaps lunch. Tell her you didn’t intend to offend anyone, especially her. Tell her she has already helped educate you. I’m not clear exactly what you said about W, but he sure is an easy target, Unless you called for his scalp, I think you’re good.

You can’t take back your joke, especially if you believe it. The best course here might be to behave as the ultimate professional: Kill her with kindness.

• • •



Everyone loves a good laugh until you step on someone’s sensibilities. The best way to disarm your newfound enemy is with more humor. Start the conversation with her the same way you began your question: “I stepped in it.” Explain that you didn’t intend to hurt her feelings and that you’re sorry for the offense. Then give her a chance to have her turn. Invite her to turn the tables and tell a few liberal-bashing jokes. If she is not the joking kind, then give her some time. Let her know that the stage is hers whenever she is ready to get her comedic revenge.

You will not change your point of view, but you will send the message that you can take it as easily as you can dish it out.

If she refuses to play along, then you have an earnest, flat-footed prude on your hands. In that case, step aside and be careful to tell your jokes discreetly. Be polite to your new colleague, and realize that extending yourself to her may not work. Make the effort to make a connection with the understanding that she may not be interested in one. You can take the rejection with style and humor.

• • •


Rather than be polite, why not just ignore her?

• • •


Reach out first. If there is a way to diffuse the palpable tension in a small workplace, then try it. If it doesn’t work, then ignore her until–H is right–she heads back to the small-minded place from whence she came.

And H, you assure us that your habit of poking around people’s vulnerable sides is a habit of the past. So you consider yesterday the past?

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