How to Know You’ve Crossed the Line

New research shows how your emotional intelligence can guide your relationships.

Posted May 22, 2018

Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

You’re having a pleasant chat with one of your favorite relatives at a family gathering when you realize you’ve said the wrong thing. It obviously wasn’t your intention to create a rift with this person you really like, but she ends the conversation abruptly, turns, and walks away. As you reflect back on the situation, it occurs to you that you probably shouldn’t have made a joke about the drawing her daughter made in second grade, which was proudly displayed on the refrigerator. It was pretty cute, but maybe you shouldn’t have pointed out that the dog in the picture looked like an elephant.

Attempts to be funny can often backfire, as in this situation, but so can intrusive questions about topics that apparently are more sensitive than you realize. Your partner comes home in the evening in what strikes you as an unusually bad mood. You know that it was a big day involving several meetings and a couple of important phone calls. Of course, you’re eager to know how it all went. Your curiosity outweighs the couple of yellow flags you’re getting from your partner’s body language, and you delve right in by asking one question after another. Instead of responding to those yellow flags, you tease your partner about being so reticent with an admonition to “lighten up.” Unfortunately, it’s only after your partner leaves the room in a huff that you realize you should’ve given your partner more time to unwind and, when ready, deliver the full story of the day’s events.

Crossing the line as you did in these situations can be thought of as a reflection of your emotional intelligence. Defined as the ability to read the cues of other people, as well as your own inner signals, emotional intelligence is a quality that helps facilitate better relationships and, according to some, can also improve your ability to succeed in a wide range of spheres, including work and community life. Research shows, too, that people with high emotional intelligence are happier. Most recently, Beijing Normal University’s Mingzhu Wang and colleagues (2018) proposed that humor styles play an important role in understanding the relationship between emotional intelligence and subjective well-being. According to their reasoning, if you’re high in emotional intelligence, you know when to avoid overstepping the line with inappropriately placed humor.

The key to understanding humor's role in this process involves differentiating between the types of jokes people tell based on their emotional intelligence. As defined by the Chinese researchers, “humor style refers to how individuals express humor in interpersonal interactions and how they use humor to cope with stress.” Humor styles vary according to whether the use of humor is adaptive or maladaptive, and whether the humor is intended to enhance the self or to enhance relationships with others. The four humor styles produced by crossing these two dimensions are affiliative (adaptive, other-oriented), self-enhancing (adaptive, self-oriented), aggressive (maladaptive, other-oriented), and self-defeating (maladaptive, self-oriented). Although we tend to think of the ability to make jokes and appreciate humor as a quality that helps to foster well-being, as you read about these four subtypes, it probably strikes you that some types may work better than others both to help improve your mood and your relationships. Indeed, as Wang et al. point out, it’s only affiliative and self-enhancing humor that previous research has identified as having beneficial effects on well-being.

In affiliative humor, you make jokes intended to create amusement and benefit your relationships. You might, for example, comment on the absurdity of a situation, such as when a GPS tells you to go in the opposite direction from the one you know is correct. In self-enhancing humor, you show that you’re able to laugh about yourself when you’re in a tough situation, such as laughing when you trip over your feet. In both of these examples, you’re taking a common situation and seeing the irony or idiosyncrasies it presents, but not taking aim at anyone in particular. Put-downs, insults, and criticisms fall into the aggressive humor style, and in self-defeating humor, you constantly put yourself down. When you’re using one of the two adaptive forms of humor, you probably won’t cross over the line, unless it is to make jokes when no jokes should be made at all. Even then, if your emotional intelligence is high, you’ll be unlikely to make such an error in social judgment. As the Normal University researchers note, “Those who are clear about others’ emotions tend to know when is appropriate to and what is the proper way to joke, thus they are more likely to amuse others in a mild way (affliative humor) without hurting others’ feelings.”

To test the proposal that adaptive humor would serve as the key linkage between emotional intelligence and well-being, Wang and collaborators asked a sample of 263 Chinese college students (approximately 50 percent male-female) to complete measures of emotional intelligence, humor styles, affect (positive and negative), and life satisfaction. In the version of the humor scale used for this study, the aggressive scale included statements assessing whether participants used humor inappropriately, which comes close to the notion of stepping over the line.

As the authors anticipated, self-reports of emotional intelligence were positively related to life satisfaction, as well as to higher levels of positive affect. Further, as predicted, humor style also played an important role in this relationship. People higher in emotional intelligence also tended to use self-enhancing humor; those lower in emotional intelligence used self-defeating humor. Participants rating themselves high on the favorable humor styles had, in turn, higher levels of well-being. The remaining two humor styles, affiliative and aggressive, did not predict well-being, though aggressive humor was negatively related to emotional intelligence, and affiliative was positively predicted by emotional intelligence.

As a correlational study, the Beijing Normal University research could not definitively pinpoint the causal connections among humor, emotional intelligence, and well-being. It is always possible that people high in well-being are happy enough with themselves and their lives to use only the non-attacking forms of humor. However, if emotional intelligence is the ability to sense when to use humor, it still seems more likely that it allows you to use humor appropriately and, in turn, to be happier, because your relationships are better as well. 

Let’s turn now to understanding how you can tune up your own emotional intelligence to ensure that you don’t overstep the line in your use of humor. The Chinese study suggests that your best bet is to steer clear of aggressive humor altogether. If you’re high in emotional intelligence, you probably won’t use it anyway. If you’re not quite that well-tooled in reading the situation, then you might need to take a careful look back at the situations that went sour after you told a joke to see if your use of aggressive humor was the culprit.

To sum up, humor is certainly one of the best ways to help see the bright side of life, and to help bond you with other people in your life. Learning how to avoid crossing the line by using the right kind of humor can help make those relationships as fulfilling as possible.


Wang, M., Zou, H., Zhang, W., & Hou, K. (2018). Emotional intelligence and subjective well-being in chinese university students: The role of humor styles. Journal of Happiness Studies, doi:10.1007/s10902-018-9982-2