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What a wreck

Inês Paler, Coach, Mom, Traveler

“People like you should be put on a boat and set on fire”.

The sinking

Ah, the things you can get away with under the label of humour. Or can you?

I was at the office when someone asked me what I was going to do over the long weekend. It was during working hours but folks were kind of taking a break to socialise a little and get some downtime. I was not. So without thinking about it, I said I was going to celebrate the 25th of April, the reason why it was a long weekend. It’s the anniversary of the Democratic system in Portugal, after the end of Dictatorship in 74.

I was eager to get everything ready before heading off. So, the reply felt like an unexpected punch in the face. “People like you – Communists – should be put on a boat and set on fire”.

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People like you – Communists – should be put on a boat and set on fire

The wreck

In the ideal world, my reaction would have been sublime, elegant and effective. It would have been a good opportunity to educate my fellow colleagues on the need to respect one another. I could have told them not to jump to conclusions and to not bring political discussions and biases to the office. But that didn’t happen. In fact, I had no reaction at all. I was dumbfounded.

To top it up, the rest of the people around started laughing. Not because they wanted to humiliate or offend me. It was because they thought it was a joke, and one laughs at these things. After all, this was a senior guy with the reputation of being funny.

You might know the type: someone gets the label, over time, of being an inconvenient comedian. And that somehow ends up allowing them to get away with things that no one else would. And so the comment slid.

For a long time afterwards, I wondered about the answer I could have given, the words I didn’t say. L’esprit the escalier, as they call that feeling of the having the perfect reply too late. The difference is that this feeling lasted for months, if not more.

The Life Vest

Instead, I disengaged. I figured there was no way I could change the way this group acted so I had to be the one to adapt. And I did so by avoiding interacting with this person. Fortunately, this was not someone I had to be with much and I am not the most sociable person, so it wasn’t too bad. But there was a bad taste in my mouth. As for the others, I told myself they hadn’t realised what was going on and there was no point in holding a grudge.

I understand there’s a place for humour and that it can be healthy. And sometimes teasing and provocation can be a way of showing proximity and intimacy. It can be a way of making or reinforcing friendships. And having friends at work has been proven to be stellar – for both your performance and happiness.

Yet, this backfired in my case. The line between being funny and inconsiderate or disrespectful is often very fine.

Either way, it gave me the skills and got me ready for other episodes that would come later. And when it happened again, I was prepared.

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Lesson Learnt

Humour often backfires, and sometimes you can’t even tell.

It’s worth checking our own sense of humour – could this be offensive? Is this appropriate in this setting (family, friends, coworkers, strangers)?

If you see something, say something. It is the bystander – the person who sees but is not an active participant in an event- who often has the strongest possibility to intervene. They can better change a situation around. This is because the person who is doing harm might not be aware of it. And the person “receiving it” might not feel in the position to respond (scared, shocked, unaware).

As a manager, you have a big influence on the culture of your team. Ensuring everyone feels comfortable, welcome and safe will enable a stronger and healthier team.

If you are facing tough situations like these at work, coaching might help you find the best way to approach it. I would love to help you so if you are interested, visit me at Coaching for Me or just email me at

If you are a manager and want to make sure you bring your teams to their best, visit me at Coaching for Work for coaching, team initiatives and Professional Assessments. You can also just email me at