Taboo Humor

Telling Taboo Jokes

Something that is forbidden or highly disapproved of is taboo.  Taboo topics include making fun of any groups in American society with lower status or power. In U.S. history and culture, the dominant group has been white, heterosexual, Protestant Christian, able-bodied males from Northern European heritage—someone like me, actually. 


Taboo jokes, then, make fun of people of color, women, non-Christians, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities, or obese people.  Because my friends are members of these various groups, I don’t tell taboo jokes.

In this regard, today’s What’s So Funny? segment isn’t at all funny.

So, what do you do if someone begins to tell you a taboo joke?  If you hear a taboo joke coming, it is best to stop the person and not let him finish.  You can say something like, “It sounds like you are saying something that would offend my [black or female or gay or handicapped or whatever] friends.  I prefer not to hear those; they aren’t funny to me.”  In other words, just take a stand against this type of unkind joking.

Calling a time-out: interrupting a joke before it goes too far.

Calling a time-out: interrupting a joke before it goes too far.

What do you do if the person has finished the joke before you realized it or before you could stop it?  It is not easy to be brave in public, to speak up when you know someone is being unkind.  In this case, there is another option.  You can simply not laugh.  Say nothing, and wait for the person to respond.  He (or she) will probably become uncomfortable and realize that this joke is not a good idea in your presence. 

There is a second option, but it is a little bit sneaky.  That is to pretend you didn’t understand the joke and ask the person to explain it.  The person will likely become embarrassed if actually needing to explain the joke point by point.  This may discourage further telling of taboo jokes.

Remember to keep your jokes upbeat and friendly.  That way, EVERYONE can laugh and think, “That’s very funny!”


Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.