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Is This [Joke] Appropriate?

Or, “Don’t poke the bear”

In this blog post, I will attempt to share some of my current thoughts and related ideas on “appropriateness”.



Inappropriate jokes often have undesirable consequences. So, it follows that by avoiding inappropriate jokes you can reduce undesirable consequences.

But, what exactly is “appropriate”? And, how can we determine if “This joke is appropriate”?

Technically, “all jokes are always appropriate”. However, this theoretical stance can lead to problems in the real world. Instead, a more practical stance embodies and realizes the idea “Think before you speak” by acknowledging the subjectivity of “appropriateness” and utilizing a framework of considerations that helps us become more informed, gain insight, avoid inappropriate jokes, and reduce undesirable consequences.

An inappropriate example

Per Wikipedia: “In December 2013, Justine Sacco, a woman with 170 Twitter followers, tweeted acerbic jokes during a plane trip from New York to Cape Town. … Sacco slept during her 11-hour plane trip and woke up to find out that she had lost her job and was the number one Twitter topic worldwide, with celebrities and new media bloggers all over the globe denouncing her and encouraging all their followers to do the same. Sacco's employer, New York internet firm IAC, declared that she had lost her job as Director of Corporate Communications”

If you Google “Justine Sacco” you’ll get plenty of results. She is often seen as a “poster child” of “victims of the internet mob mentality”. There is even a June 2015 TED Talk by Jon Ronson titled “When online shaming goes too far” that details the “Justine Sacco” incident and aftermath (as well as a few other stories of questionable jokes and their consequences). The TED talk and most of the results often focus on the “appropriateness” of the consequences of the jokes (the effects). However, in this post, I’m more interested in focusing on the “appropriateness” of the jokes (the causes) themselves.

Justine was fired for making an inappropriate joke. And, if you Google “fired for a joke”, you’ll get many more results and examples of questionable jokes and their consequences. However, being fired is just one possible consequence of an inappropriate joke.

And more…

There are many other consequences of inappropriate jokes that are minor, moderate, major, or even worse. Examples include silence (like when no one laughs at a joke), making formal apologies (like when golfer Bubba Watson posted a video regretfully acknowledging his “bad attempt at a joke”), public shaming (like when editor Victor Paul Alvarez was rebuked on social media after he authored an article including a “tasteless, mean joke”), and even death (like when 11-year old Tyson Benz committed suicide after being the victim of a social media prank). There are many widely- and hardly-known examples of inappropriate jokes that resulted in consequences that, whether trivial or disastrous, were all undesirable.


If any of the people above were able to see the future consequences of their jokes before they were made, although they might have an opinion on whether or not the consequences were right, fair, or reasonable, I suspect that most would agree that the consequences are undesirable, and therefore make different decisions. I believe that most would choose not to tell the joke.

Unfortunately, no one can see the future or definitively know the effects of their jokes. But, it is possible to gain insight into the potential consequences of a joke and make better choices based on whether or not the joke is “appropriate”.


What exactly is “appropriate”?

The word “appropriate” means “suitable or proper for a particular purpose, person, or circumstance”. Synonyms include “apt”, “fitting”, and “accepted”. And, like other abstract concepts such as courage and pain, “appropriateness” is subjective. “Appropriateness” depends on personal beliefs, feelings, and views. It describes the relationship between how “suitable or proper” someone feels about something at sometime.

So, “Is This joke appropriate?” The answer depends on your perspective and more.

Philosophical Perspective

If you view this question philosophically (according to philosophical rules and principles) or theoretically (in a way that relates to general principles), then the answer is always “Yes, this joke is appropriate”. In fact, from a philosophical perspective, “All jokes are always appropriate”. Why? One reason is because the opposite answer – “No, this joke is inappropriate” – leads to a Slippery Slope.

Roughly, a Slippery Slope is when one assertion or action leads to a chain of events that culminate in some (often unacceptable, unintended, undesirable) result. Like trying to traverse a literal “slippery slope”, one misstep could slide into another misstep, and into another, and another, and so on. In this case, if one person has the right to claim, “This joke is inappropriate”, then it allows others the same right to also claim, “That joke is inappropriate, too”. This is problematic because, if this line of reasoning is followed to a logical conclusion, it permits anyone the right to claim, “No jokes are ever appropriate.”

And if we heed, respect, and comply with the claims of others, it could lead to a world without jokes, comedy, or humor.

Pragmatic Perspective

However - fortunately or unfortunately, right or wrong - we don’t live in a world that always adheres to philosophical or theoretical perspectives. Instead, we live in a practical world that is full of differing beliefs, feelings, and views, various values and ideologies, social and cultural norms, unspoken “rules”, and much more that guide our behavior and help us determine and dictate, among other things, what is and is not appropriate.

And so, if you view this question pragmatically (in a sensible and realistic way) or practically (actually; in reality), the answer is “It depends”.

“It depends” is an accurate answer. But, it can also be an unsatisfying one. Fortunately, “It depends” is also a temporary answer that can be replaced with a more definitive one. But how?

By “thinking before you speak”.

Think Before You Speak

This good, old phrase and idea can mean many things. Restated in this context, it simply means “carefully consider the joke before deciding whether or not to tell it”.

But, what exactly should we “think” before we “speak”?

There are countless things - factors - that might be considered. These factors can provide more information, which can lead to increased insight, and allow for a more educated answer and better decisions. And, while trying to make a comprehensive list of factors might be difficult or even impossible, it is reasonable to explicitly list a few important factors. I’ve collected and made explicit some of these important factors in something I call the "Funny Framework".

The Funny Framework

The Funny Framework details a few important factors that can be considered before you speak. When trying to answer, “Is This Joke Appropriate?”, consider:

  • Intentions – Why (for what reason/s) is the joke being told?

  • Content – What is the subject matter (the topic, characters, situation, etc.) of the joke?

  • Medium – What is the means (written, verbal, digitally, remotely, directly, etc.) by which the joke is being told?

  • Control – Can the reach and audience of the joke be managed?

  • Context – What are the circumstances that form the setting, conditions, environment, and situation in which the joke is being told?

  • Audience – To whom is the joke being told? What is known about them?

  • Reputation – What is the standing of the joke teller in this context and with this audience?

  • Interpretations – How is the joke desired to be understood? How might this joke actually be understood?

  • For each Interpretation…

  • Likelihood – How probable is it that joke will be interpreted this way?

  • Consequences – If the joke is interpreted this way, what might happen?

Considering any or all of these factors can provide more information, which can lead to increased insight and allow for a more educated answer and better decisions, and potentially avoid undesirable consequences.

Framework Criticisms

While useful, this framework is not without its problems and criticisms. Two are “It might not work!” and “It’s a lot of work!” However, both of these issues can be addressed and overcome.

It Might Not Work!

Using this framework might still result in undesirable consequences! That is because the framework is not an algorithm or formula. It will not produce an answer that is guaranteed to be correct.

Instead, this framework is a heuristic – a method for solving a problem (in this case, determining if a given joke is appropriate) – that might not be optimal or effective. That is, it might fail.

However, “It might not work” (or “it might fail”) also implies “It might work” (or “it might not fail”). And the alternative to using the framework – not using the framework – guarantees a greater chance of undesirable consequences (failure).

It’s a lot of work!

Using this framework requires a great deal of thought and effort! It can be cumbersome to consider each of the framework factors.

At least initially. As with many other things, with time and practice it is possible to become more adept at using the framework. It is possible to more quickly and easily use it.

An Analogy

When I first learned to ride a bike, I frequently fell down (failed). Further, I rode very slowly, and it took a lot of effort. But, with time and with practice, I was able to become more adept at riding my bike. I was able to ride more quickly, with less effort, and without falling down (success).

That said, although I am now more adept at riding a bike more quickly and easily, it does not guarantee that I won’t fall down (fail). But, the chances of falling down are less.

Further, one alternative to riding my bike – not riding my bike; walking – guarantees some undesirable consequences (it takes me longer to get around, etc.).

Using the Funny Framework is similar. Although it might initially be cumbersome and sometimes fail (result in undesirable consequences), with time and practice, I’m now more adept at using the framework and it allows for more “success” (more desirable consequences).

So what?

So, using the Funny Framework can help you make better choices, avoid inappropriate jokes and their undesirable consequences, and “think before you speak”.

The Reveal

Most jokes end with a twist, surprise, or unexpected thing. And this post is similar.

The Funny Framework is named so partly because it helps determine if a given joke is appropriate. But, it is also named so because the framework is “funny”, as in "it is interesting, surprising, unexpected”. Why?

Although this post focuses on jokes, the ideas within are also applicable to a wide range of things, such as “comments”, “questions”, “memes”, "outfits", “actions”, and much more. And so, perhaps surprisingly, the Funny Framework can not only be used to help determine if a given joke is appropriate, but it can be used to help determine if a given thing is appropriate, as well!

“Is this [joke/comment/question/meme/outfit/action/etc.] appropriate?”

The Funny Framework can help you decide.

In My Experience, more careful consideration of a few important factors helps me gain information and insight, make better decisions and actions, and avoid unwanted consequences.

I examine and explore "appropriateness" in my talk, "Is This [Joke] Appropriate”.

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