2

The issue

My father has lately made a few sexist (and other -ist) "jokes", in the form of what I came to learn are called "disparagement jokes".
This has made me, and my wife, a bit uncomfortable.
Given the way he has raised me, I am convinced he can be taught to be better.

What I tried

The first case was a very horrible US right-wing dog whistle of a "joke" against "snowflakes" shared via Whatsapp. I reacted sternly, saying that knowing the politics behind it (we're not from the US, and he's very much not exposed to the US cultural debate), I really could not see the fun in it. He started complaining that I should be more flexible, understand that his intentions are not evil, and that "nowadays you can't joke about anything without offending someone". I replied that lots of jokes can be made without offending someone, and being convinced of the contrary is not a good look. The conversation died.

A few days later he made a joke at the dinner table saying that I was lucky that my wife in those days what without voice as I "could have a bit of peace". I gave him the stink-eye on the spot.
I then resumed the conversation pointing out that it's not a nice thing to say. His response was unchanged, with the addition that I should remember that it was a joke based on a stereotype, so not directed towards my wife in particular.

Side Issues

His age definitely does not help. He's now a 60+ years old grandfather. His mind and attitudes are pretty difficult to change and he's demonstrating more and more an unwillingness to learn new things, starting with technology.
He's also former military and the son/grandson of someone who fought WWII for the wrong side and never recanted their beliefs. He only recently started being fed up with voting center-right-wing (only after the company he worked for was basically sold for scraps by a right-wing government).
In addition, my parents - but here is mostly my mother, I feel - think that in a marriage, the woman pulls the husband away from his family, and thus they might think that these issues I have with those "jokes" have been forced upon me by my US wife, rather than being something I really think, so they might be more prone to dismiss them.
I also have lived out of my parents' home for the last 20 years, so they have not seen me change gradually, they only have seen the big changes (such as refusing to go to church since ~15 years ago).

My Aim

I would like to have him understand why certain jokes are hurtful, without burning bridges with him.
I think I need to teach him about the problems of disparaging jokes in general and have him understand the way they hurt people, but I can't find a good way.

How can I explain my point to my father in an effective way without burning bridges?

Risks

I risk alienating my father if I continue telling him that certain jokes are not ok/hurtful without having him understand why. Knowing him, he'd rather stop talking to me rather than being told that he's making mistakes. As a middle ground he would simply stop making jokes of all kinds around me, but I know he would resent me in that case, and resolution would be more complicated.

1
  • What's wrong with the classic "that's not (very) funny" as a response to such joke(s)? If he asks why, make the explanation as simple as possible, e.g. "it's not very nice to Mom/women/disabled people/etc." and then don't say any more than that (i.e. it's not a debate about what's nice or not; you're just stating your opinion).
    – Brandin
    Jan 17, 2023 at 9:09

3 Answers 3

4

Your father has made it indirectly apparent that he does not care about the impact of his behaviour on you or your wife.

The next step may be to confront him directly and tell him very clearly the effect his behaviour is having on you.

He will then have the opportunity to modify his behaviour. The silly adage "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" is nonsense and nothing more than an excuse for stubborn people to willfully refuse to change. After all, you're just asking him to act like a decent and respectful person, not prove whether the Riemann Hypothesis is true or false.

If he changes his behaviour, great. Remember, change isn't always linear, and sometimes involves 2 steps forward and 1 step backward. But change does involve a gradual progression, over time, in a general direction.

If he continues to demonstrate he doesn't care about the impact he is having on you and your wife, you have your unfortunate answer: your father is, regrettably, a self-centered person who places his desire to be offensive above the feelings of his son and his daughter-in-law. At that point you'll have to decide how much time, if any, you want to spend around him.

2

If it were practicable to change someone's mind by stratagem, then we'd have done away with politics both domestic and international. I don't think you should be trying to change your father's mind, at least not directly. Instead, focus on his behaviour (which might lead him to change his mind "himself", too).

In either case, I don't think that this issue yet rises to the level of ethics. Rather I believe that it needs to be dealt with as an issue of etiquette. Your father is making jokes, and we could have a very long and quite difficult discussion about the merits of comedic license in various cases (a discussion that I feel sure would result in changing no one's mind). As is such, I would expect that assaults aimed to change your father's position will be fruitless. His beliefs are a fortress in which he will feel quite safe.

His behaviour, on the other hand, is much more vulnerable to redress. Persons almost never agree completely on any items of political or personal belief, and they cannot be forced to change their thoughts, one way or the other; but in polite society the responsibility to treat others with kindness and respect can and should regulate their conduct.

If I were you, I would politely, but firmly, inform your father that these sorts of jokes are not funny to you, or your wife. That you would ask him not to make them in your presence, as they sour your mood and ruin what should be a pleasant meeting of parent and child. If he wishes to know, you are happy to explain just why you find them objectionable, and even why you think them wrong (although this should in my opinion be done as an explanation only, and not as accusation or evangelization). But the main point is that you want to enjoy your time with your father, and the behaviour that he takes makes that impossible for you.

If he still refuses to stop, then he is wronging you, intentionally, for the benefit only of what he himself calls "just a joke". It's rude, and it's wrong of him. But you'll have to respond to it, show your displeasure, and possibly give him less of your time and interest until he decides to treat you properly. Or else you'll have to give in. But that's up to you.

Additionally, I would not be likely to countenance jokes which insult my significant other in any capacity. In such circumstances the first step would be a firm and uncompromising rebuttal of the premise; "there is nothing about my wife's voice which brings me anything but peace, and the sooner it comes back the better". And if the hint is not taken, and such jokes continue, a more direct stipulation that insults of that kind against your wife are not acceptable, and you won't let them pass.

2
  • 2
    Please read: What are the citation expectations of answers on IPS Stack Exchange?. We require all answers here to be supported by either personal experiences or to an account of someone else's experience with the same or a closely-related issue.
    – gparyani
    Jan 12, 2023 at 6:00
  • For what it's worth, I have, many times, told family members "I really don't like those kinds of jokes, please don't tell them to me." No accusations or implications that they are wrong for liking/telling these jokes, just I don't want to hear them. Eventually, they have decreased the frequency with which they say them in my presence. It did work... kinda, but I'm not sure there is any more effective way of dealing with this.
    – Esther
    Mar 20, 2023 at 20:17
1

I think I need to teach him about the problems of disparaging jokes in general and have him understand the way they hurt people.

This is where I'd stop, and u-turn. You're walking down the wrong alley, in my opinion. I'm also pretty sure that you already thought about that and just want to "fire a last round", just in case...

His mind and attitudes are pretty difficult to change and he's demonstrating more and more an unwillingness to learn new things.

Like many old folks (pretty much all of them I know, actually) I dare to say. Being one of them (old chaps, I mean, not stubborn old horses) helps understand what you mean and want to achieve. But, as the old saying goes: "one can not teach old dogs new tricks"1. Suck it up, and don't make things spiralling out of control. That would be the best advice I could give to you.

I've face the same kind of situation, twice. Like you, I wanted to improve things, and have the people involved stop or, at least, change their behaviour. Only results I got were 100% negative, ranging from "wilful ignorance" to "patronizing", with a huge (broad) palette of colours and nuances. No matter how I would approach the topic, they would just challenge every bit of discussion or idea. To just point the finger at you and your wrong attitude, your lack of understanding or humor... and so on...

I am not willing (and prepared) to fight against windmills for years and years, like Don Quixote. Neither I recommend to people to waste time and energy doing so. What I did was to suck it up, stop talking with them as soon as the "jokes" (or topics poking at you, to tease and/or make you uncomfortable or upset) were igniting, start talking to someone else, switching topics to try and deflect, leaving the room to go elsewhere in the house (even with no or false pretext) and sometimes, forget (for months or years) where the bridge was, without burning it.

For decades, these people didn't change, didn't modify any of their pattern or behaviour. They remain the same. The same annoying people (yes, they were family...). When it happened with acquaintances, it was much easier: stop, go, and never come back.

So, you have to set your own (new?) expectations, revise them maybe, and decide on what to do next according to your goal. I just gave you an insight from experience and a point of view, and that's the best I can do in that situation, as I have no magic trick to share.

1. I definitely love new tricks :)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.