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Some time ago (four years ago), I was eating in the cafeteria with a friend (let's call him Arthur) and a group of friends (4 people).

Arthur wasn't a part of our regular friends group (even though we all appreciate him) and he had a love interest in me.

During the conversation, Arthur told us (and more specifically, me) about a time where he came home after a party and met his drunken neighbor (a woman his age) who kissed him while he didn't want to. She really wanted to have sex with him, but he was able to keep her away.

When he told us that, I was horrified. He was reporting a sexual assault and I was unable to determine if was supposed to laugh (even though I didn't find it funny) or if I was supposed to have a more serious reaction.

He wasn't saying this like a confession (the way you talk when you are alone with someone you trust and are talking about something serious), but more on the lighter side (even though it wasn't totally the case). I was at a loss about what reaction was expected of me (since I was the one he was directly addressing).

I don't really remember what my reaction was but I believe I joked it off, which is definitively not something I'm proud of.

Question

Should a similar situation arise, how can I respond in a way that shows I take this seriously but without "killing the mood" or overdoing it? I don't want to be freaking out if the other person is already over what happened and I also don't want to embarrass the other person because of my reaction.

Notes and clarifications

  • This happened a long time ago so I don't really remember, but he wasn't really laughing, even though when he started the anecdote, I thought it was going to be a joke.
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Personally, when I'm this unsure about something this serious, I'm often happy to spoil a more jovial mood in case the person needs not-joking support. I'd rather ruin a joke than miss an opportunity to support someone who might need it.

But sometimes I really do want to avoid crossing that line, too. So I try to mirror their approach - a tone of amusement, but serious words. This is meant to put the ball back into their court, emphasizing that yes, I'll acknowledge the seriousness of what they're saying. In this case, my response might be:

laughing Wow, that's messed up. looks into the other person's eyes with a smile that's half-amusement and half-concern Are you, uh, okay? That could mess someone up!

The goal there is to try to offer an opportunity for a tonal segue without necessarily forcing it myself.

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When a victim, or possible victim is unsure as to whether the thing that happened to them was sexual harassment or not they are usually asked how the particular incident made them feel personally. Of course, there are guidelines as to what is, or is not sexual harassment, otherwise there would be nothing to prevent someone from defining literally anything as such, but there are areas in which it the defining factor is personal to the victim.

What you seem to be doing is overlooking how Arthur feels about the event and instead ascribing to his situation how you would potentially feel if it happened to you. You say he told you this anecdotally, which suggests to me that he may even find the situation funny. He may feel a degree of pity for his drunken neighbour either because he knows her or simply because she was drunk and perhaps was not thinking clearly. To be clear, in some situations those factors would not excuse certain serious behaviours, but in this "grey area" where what matters most is how Arthur feels, his pity or empathy for the woman may well override any notion that he had been assaulted. Even if he did feel "violated" in some way, that does not automatically mean that he thinks it is a "crime".

Obviously, if someone described to you a situation which is clearly an unreported crime, that would be different and I would be suggesting to you ways that you could convince the victim to see it how it really is, report the incident and get the necessary help; but in this situation your suggesting to Arthur that something serious has happened to him would be entirely based in your opinion.

Instead I would suggest you just satisfy your own feelings by checking he is okay. Something as simple as:

I would not like that to happen to me. Are you sure you're okay with it?

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Should a similar situation arise, how can I respond in a way that shows I take this seriously but without "killing the mood" or overdoing it?

When a person says something with the intention of light-heartedly entertaining their audience but it instead makes me uncomfortable or is about a topic I take seriously, one way I might communicate how I feel but still avoid freaking them out is to not give the expected reaction.

So, in your case Arthur has said a "funny anecdote" about being kissed by force and would be expecting you (and others) to laugh/smile/make a light hearted comment/tell your own uncomfortable story or something of the like. You want to show that you take this seriously but don't want to derail the lighthearted conversation. Regardless of how serious (or not) of an issue it is, if you were to explain the ins and outs of sexual assault and demand everyone else take it seriously by consoling him, it can be viewed as quite negatively by the others. It wasn't your anecdote in the first place so you really should not be the one to dictate how it is being told. Instead, I think doing nothing is an overlooked method for communicating your own stance without taking control of the conversation. It also allows you more time to gauge the exact situation a bit better as from your question it seems you weren't totally convinced whether he wanted you to respond light heartedly or not. To be clear, doing nothing does not exactly communicate that you take the topic seriously, rather it communicates that you don't find it funny/entertaining and that you don't encourage or endorse others to take it lightly (which is close enough for me).

In a light hearted group conversation I absolutely would not expect you to be personally asked what you think, but if your lack of a response catches the others' attention and they do ask you, then so long as you don't start ranting, you could safely explain what you think without worrying about being perceived negatively, killing the mood or freaking anyone out. The fact that you were prompted makes all the difference.

I am relating a lot of this to when I am having a light hearted conversation/s with my friends and they might joke about social or political issues. I have a lot of different or even opposite ideals to many of my friends so its not unheard of that someone will be telling a light hearted story and I will think that it is horrifying, important, plain wrong or basically anything but light hearted. The parts I am comparing is that these are light hearted conversations and that the other person is telling a story, and these factors indicate to me that the best way for you and I to not encourage the joke but still avoid freaking the others out and blindsiding them with 10 reasons why X is terrible and has to stop would be to simply not participate in that portion of the conversation unless prompted.

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Background

One of the interpersonal skills I use most often is to watch the actions of the group to determine the accepted social dynamics. Whenever I am in a group setting where I am unfamiliar with what is socially acceptable, I try to watch what everyone else is doing. Generally, I will seek out the person that I see as the leader of the group (i.e a manager at work, or the friend with the most dominant personality) and focus primarily on watching their actions. I've found myself being able to fit in well and pick up social norms without embarrassing myself simply by playing "follow the leader"

Determining socially acceptable responses

For your situation, I would actually suggest not just watching the leader. I say this because a sexual assault is a very serious matter. Since Arthur is talking about his own experience being assaulted, he might relaying the story in a light-hearted manner as a method of coping with what happened to him.

If joking is his way to cope, that's fine as long as his jokes don't cause anyone else distress. You indicated that the others in the group know Arthur, so it is possible that they will have a better idea of if this is the case. You should watch the whole group to see if they seem uncomfortable. If nobody else seems uncomfortable, then you can take his comments as they are if you are comfortable doing so.

What to do when you are uncomfortable

You mentioned that you didn't find it funny, and from the other things you've said, you clearly were uncomfortable with the situation. The topic at hand is a very uncomfortable one to discuss, and even though he was strictly referring to his own experience, there's no social convention that says you have to be comfortable with it. If you aren't, then you can gently point out your discomfort.

Arthur, I'm sorry you had to go through that, and I know that this isn't an easy subject to talk about, but I'm uncomfortable having a light-hearted conversation about such a serious and sensitive subject.

I had a friend in college who used this approach quite successfully. When conversations made her uncomfortable, she would very gently tell the person that was speaking what about the conversation made her uncomfortable, and request a change to ease her discomfort. Every time she did this (except with one person who was neither a friend, nor well liked), the person would alter the conversation to help her be more comfortable.

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