My brother-in-law is a joker. He’s a very nice man who gets along with everybody, an extrovert. He loves to joke with people, and he usually gives nicknames or uses a personality trait for humor. This is fine most of the time, but the “thing” he chose to use with me hits too close to home and it has become very hurtful. He calls me “lazy ass” (in a loose translation) and makes comments about how I’m disorganized and basically do nothing all day. Just today, he came over to “inspect” my apartment and comment on my mess, talked about how they’re going to use my spare room for the baby (“you don’t need it”) and how I’m going to babysit for them to “pay things over” or something like that. My sister just called to invite me over for coffee, and when I hesitated because I was actually studying, he asked “are you doing anything useful for a change?”.
I’m not really a lazy ass. I don’t work as hard as my sister, but I do work all afternoons and Saturday mornings, and I go to school every weeknight. I’m not an organized person, but I’m trying to do better. I’m not sure if this is because he thinks that I abuse my sister’s and my mother’s help. I don’t pay for cable and wi-fi (my sister lives next door and shares with me), and I don’t pay my apartment’s bills either. I can’t afford these things, but my parents’ house is an incredibly toxic environment and this is the arrangement we made (my mother, my sister and I). I don’t like it – I hate it. When I left their house after a terrible crisis I wanted to support myself, but my mother insisted that I should stay in the family’s apt (it was empty).
The thing is that we (mother and daughters) do have this “system” where we help each other. We call when we are going to the supermarket to check if anybody needs anything, they call me to offer rides when they’re out and they know I’m leaving work, we borrow and lend clothes. My bother-in-law, however, pretty much raised himself.
I realize I get help more than I give right now, but I don’t know what do to. Should I offer to clean their house once a week? Do their shopping? Ask them to change their wifi password and cut the cable from my side? I *am* planning to help when the baby comes, I’m not heartless. He’s only here a few days every few weeks, as he works in another city, but it’s become something that bothers probably more than it should.
Your brother-in-law’s jokes don’t really sound like jokes. You know it. I know it. He knows it. If they were actually jokes he’d pick on you about something you have a big ego about, or something ridiculous and innocuous, not all the places you are most vulnerable. They only become jokes when you call him out on it, like, if you said “Hey, that nickname really hurts my feelings, please stop using it” or “I am confused by your comments about how I am not doing anything useful; I’m studying.” Then they will become jokes, he was just joking, his hands will go up, and he’ll back away from you because you’re so “sensitive” and “serious” and “you can’t take a joke.”
His jokes are belittling someone he sees as having less power than he does. I mean, so, you’re living in an apartment owned by your parents while you go to school and work part time. That doesn’t make you lazy, it’s actually quite normal. It doesn’t mean he gets to drop by and make fun of how you live whenever he wants to (speaking of doing useless stuff). It’s an incredibly frustrating way to be bullied, because he puts you in the position of looking like the mean/rude one if you resist.
Okay, let’s say he is really nice and clueless and he really means these to be jokes and doesn’t realize it hurts your feelings. Cool. Fortunately, the way for you to deal with the behavior for a “clueless jokester” and “verbal bully” is exactly the same. The scripts will tell you which kind you’re dealing with pretty quickly and give you some ways to respond. It is important that you respond; staying silent does nothing but embolden these folks.
Him: “Hey Lazy Ass!”
You: “Wow. Actually, I really don’t like being called that, so can you please stop?”
[[[[Clueless Joker, who is an actually nice, kind person will say “You know what? I’m really sorry, of course I will stop” and the conversation will end here.]]]]]]]
A bully will keep going: “Hey, no need to make a big deal out of nothing! I was only kidding! What, can’t you take a joke?”
You: “Cool, glad to hear it’s not a big deal. Then you won’t mind calling me by my name. Thank you!”
Him: “Jeez, why do you have to be so serious about everything?”
You: “Yes. I am very serious. So, call me by my name. Thanks.”
Whatever he accuses you of, re: seriousness, agree. “You are correct, I literally do not understand humor or jokes. So, my name, then?” Then end the conversation as soon as you can.
When He Drops By Version:
He knocks on door. You answer it but don’t open it all the way.
You: “Brother-In-Law, it’s not a good time right now. If you need to come by for some reason, can you call ahead and set it up? Thanks.”
[[[[Clueless Jokester, who is a kind, considerate person will say “Sorry to bug you, is it ok if I stop back by around x o’clock today or tomorrow?”]]]]]
A bully will say: “What, you’re not doing anything important! It’s not like you do anything useful! Your sister and mom don’t have to call ahead!”
You: “Well, I am actually busy right now, so, why don’t you call or email and we can figure out a good time for you to come by. Bye!”
A bully is going to go complain to your sister, who is going to complain to your mom.They should back you up, but if his persona is “Super-Fun Guy” and your role in the family is ‘The Difficult One’ you can’t count on it. So be ready.
Scripts for your sister, when she approaches you:
You: “I know he is only joking, but it hurts my feelings and I’m tired of it, so I asked him to stop. If it is just a joke, then he’ll stop, right?”
Her: “He doesn’t mean anything by it/that’s just how he is/can’t you try to be more understanding, etc.” The apologist’s dance of “I know I’m living with a bully and I’d rather let him bully you than actually deal with it!”
You: I haven’t wanted to make a big deal of it, believe me, but it’s just gone on too long without me saying something. I need it to stop. Back me up, please?
See also: “I am grateful for how you guys help me out with internet and bills, etc. but I’d appreciate advance notice if he needs to come by for some reason, thank you.”
Scripts for your mom, when she approaches you:
You: “I love brother-in-law, but sometimes his jokes are too much. So, I asked him to stop making certain jokes to me. It’s actually weird to me that he complained to you about that.”
Her: “He doesn’t mean anything by it/that’s just how he is/can’t you try to be more understanding, etc. Dance, apologist, dance!
You: “I try to just roll with it, honestly, but it’s gone on too long and it’s really gotten under my skin. So I’d like it to stop, and I’ve asked him to stop. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, unless he keeps going knowing how much it bothers me and hurts my feelings. That would be kind of a big deal!”
Her: Well, you can’t expect him to behave better/boys will be boys/you are sort of freeloading off of all of us and need to make certain allowances, etc. (Dance!)
You: “I am so grateful for all of your help! It would help me maintain some dignity in a difficult situation if I can have quiet and privacy to do my schoolwork without being called names. And I’d appreciate at least a day’s notice if someone is going to come by the place so I can straighten up and make sure I’m not in the middle of a project. I know this isn’t a standard landlord-tenant situation, but that’s a pretty basic landlord-tenant convention, can’t we try it out? I would be very grateful.”
If you have a friend who can help you practice saying the various scripts out loud, it might help you a lot in staying cool and calm when you do have to talk to him and your mom and sister. The Super Fun Jokester Bully thrives when you cry, when you raise your voice, when you do stuff that seems “irrational” or “crazy.” It is incredibly unfair and stupid and sexist, as if your desire not to be called names is irrational and his desire to call you names is rational, but in the sexist world we live in tears (yours) and raised voices are still a tool in this kind of bully’s arsenal. If you can keep a measured tone and just become a broken record where you repeat back “Yes, I am very serious and no fun. So please stop calling me ‘Lazy Ass,’ thank you” you will deprive him of the scene he wants and force him to escalate his behavior outside the “we’re all cool here, right?” plausible deniability field these dudes like to fly under. You want to make it a lot of work for him to keep talking to you this way.
It’s hard to stand up for yourself when you’re feeling vulnerable, but I promise, it is habit-forming. The first time it’s incredibly scary, and I’m not going to lie and say that people never push back or double down on their asshole behavior, but actually nice people will back off once they realize they have been hurting your feelings. Once you get through it a few times you will feel like you can do anything.
Your home organization skills and the financial agreements you make with your mom and your sister aren’t actually his to comment on (or trade upon for future free nanny service). You don’t need to be working at something other people consider sufficiently “useful” to have a right to dignity, privacy, and respect in your living space. If your brother-in-law is really kind, he will hear you and stop. If he is Stanley Kowalski, Jr., he can shove it where the sun don’t shine.