The importance of humor boundaries… and what to do if you’ve broken them

Boundaries. Love ’em? Hate ’em? It doesn’t matter. Because you need them. Boundaries with humor are important because they protect you and your students from uncomfortable, or even bullying, situations.

Protecting the student: 

If you are from a different country than your students, there is a good chance you have a different sense of humor. Personally, I am from the United States, where we are very sarcastic and teasing in our sense of humor. Among friends, it is usually harmless and well received, but imagine if you didn’t understand what sarcasm was…it would be easy to get your feelings hurt!

Believe it or not, sarcasm isn’t very common, or doesn’t really exist, in many countries, particularly those in Latin America and it confuses students a lot when their teachers make sarcastic comments.

Boundaries are necessary because you don’t want to make your students feel uncomfortable. If they’re not comfortable, they won’t put themselves out there and talk. And as you know, if your student doesn’t talk in class, they won’t learn. If you do make your student feel uncomfortable, what are they going to do about it? Question their teacher? Risk the potential animosity that could result if their teacher doesn’t handle the criticism well? Let’s not put our students in this position and avoid potentially confusing or insulting jokes altogether.

Protecting the Teacher: 

Just as it can be uncomfortable, or even scary, for your students to approach you when you’ve bothered them, it can be uncomfortable (at the least) to be confronted. I crossed the line the other day with a student and he approached me and asked me to not make a certain joke again. I felt terrible! I hate bullying and never imagined I could cross into that territory, but I did and I had to deal with it. Save yourself the guilt and focus on being encouraging in class, instead of cracking jokes.

What to do if you went too far and are confronted about it: 

When my student asked me to stop making that joke, he did it in a very respectful, subtle way. He asked to talk to me after class and made his case. Now, there were a few different ways I could have reacted, but really only one correct way to do it. Here’s my takeaway:

1) Apologize. 

Just do it. Don’t worry about your pride. Don’t worry about your intentions. Say you’re sorry and you won’t do it again. It doesn’t matter if you had good intentions or not because in the end what matters is how the joke was taken. And DO NOT give the fake apology “I’m sorry you had your feelings hurt.” You have to own it. Say “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.” It’s not their fault they were offended. It’s your fault for not being conscientious.

2) Don’t make the student feel bad 

When you go back to class, don’t treat the student any differently. Obviously, stop the behavior that was bothering them, but don’t make them regret confronting you, or you will soon have one less student, and maybe one less class. Carry on like usual and let everyone forget it ever happened.

In the end, I would say it is OK to joke around in class, but make sure you do it tastefully, not according to your culture, but according to theirs. If you don’t understand how humor works in their culture, then avoid it. Joking around is fun, and your students enjoy it if they understand it, but ultimately, you’re not there to make friends. You’re there to teach a language, and joking is not necessary to do that. Have a good sense of humor, but err on the side of kind and you won’t have any problems.

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