Some of us grew up with humor as a love language. Our families expressed love through joking around, teasing, and horseplay. Memories, like “the time” my sister and I mistook Desitin for toothpaste and affectionate nicknames like “Kenny” stick with us over a lifetime. Poking fun was just another way of saying, “I love you.”

Humor can be a healing agent and laughter “the best medicine.” With each belly laugh, we literally lighten our hearts. With each self-effacing comment, we humble ourselves. Humor can become a lubricant for expressing almost any emotion, from affection to anger, and often cuts the tension in the room.

Humor is endorsed by society, and legitimate forums for “almost anything goes” laughter help us lighten up, especially at contentious moments. In ancient times, jesters were on hand to enliven the mood. Today, people flock to comedy clubs, sitcoms, and funny movies. Even the President pokes fun at himself and others at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner.

But what about those times when comedy crosses the line of good taste and poking becomes slashing? When humor hurts someone in our family, school, workplace or community? Whether delivered as cutting sarcasm, name-calling, ridicule, humiliation, intimidation or shaming, the pain can be devastating and become “toxic” in many settings.

The innocent-sounding words we use can pack a subtle or not-so-subtle punch. For some, it’s an occasional guilty pleasure. For other’s, it’s the only way they know to tell someone they approve, disapprove, like or dislike them, or the way they’re acting. Whether it is done with malicious intent or innocence, humor can be scarring and corrosive. And infectious.

Drawing the line between funny and not-so-funny is not as easy as it sounds. Laughing at ourselves and kidding around can be a good thing, especially to those who take things too personally. When it comes to joking, there’s a shared responsibility, so the sensitive person does not to turn a molehill into a mountain. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

What can we do to reduce, diffuse or eliminate hurtful humor and encourage healthy laughter? The first step is greater public awareness. Similar to what we achieved with the issue of bullying, people must be aware of the issue and held accountable. It’s surprising how many who use hurtful humor are oblivious.

Next, those who abuse humor must learn to discern the humor that helps from the kind that hurts. This is not to say we should all walk around on eggshells or that changing a habit as deeply ingrained as sarcasm will be easy. Unlearning to joke at the expense of someone else will take time, as does understanding the potential collateral damage.

Asking ourselves how we’d feel if the same things were said or done to us is a good test. And, if we have an issue with somebody, it’s always better to express our thoughts and feelings in a direct, respectful and forthright manner, rather than through a razor sharp comment.

Here are a few suggestions for putting awareness into action:

1. Adopt a Code of Conduct for the personal, social and organizational use of humor.

· Humor that’s laced with anger, hurt or resentment is a bad idea.

· Step back, recuse yourself from conversations where hurtful humor is being used.

· Practice kindness in your use of humor.

2. Do a Humor Self-Audit. If you use humor in a way that could hurt someone, stop doing it and consider apologizing to anyone you may have hurt.

3. Summon the courage to speak up and/or report it to someone in authority if you’re a victim of hurtful humor, or live/work/go to school where hurtful humor is the norm.

4. Take a deep breath and lighten up if you find yourself taking things too personally and overreacting to even harmless jokes.

5. Be patient and loving with family members and close friends who you’re trying to make aware of their hurtful humor.

Anybody who’s been the butt of a cruel joke, slanderous sarcasm or malicious ridicule will tell you the hurt and embarrassment can last a lifetime — and undermine even the safest, most caring homes, classrooms, boardrooms and bedrooms. Whether it’s from the lips of a parent, sibling, spouse, buddy, teacher, boss, co-worker or friend, the humor that hurts, in all it’s forms, is simply unacceptable and has no place in our relationships.

Ken Druck, Ph.D., is an award-winning mental health expert and a leading authority in the field of resilience and aging. His most recent book, Courageous Aging, releases Spring 2017. Find him at or

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  • Dr. Ken Druck is an international authority on healthy aging and author of the new book “Raising an Aging Parent.” He has spent four decades helping people grow into the more courageous, compassionate, and resilient version of themselves by transforming adversities and losses of every kind into opportunities. Learn more at