Relationship Advice

No Laughing Matter

despondent man

My girlfriend teases me because of my accent. She thinks it's clever and funny. I don't mind being made fun of once in awhile--everybody does it--but she and our housemates make fun of me almost every day.

It's not clever or funny to mock someone every time they open their mouth. I put up with this for a year and a half but recently lost it. I'm sure she thinks I'm overreacting because every time I mention it it's like the first time I've spoken to her about it.

To me this shows she doesn't see it as anything bad. I've tried so many ways to tell her it's not funny anymore, but it never works.


Valdemar, Rudyard Kipling's poem "We And They" is about a human idiosyncrasy. We think those who share our characteristics are part of We, while everyone else is part of They. Strangely enough, those we think are They believe they are We and we are They.

Ingroup bias is one name for this tendency, and it is usually directed at the odd man, or group, out. In parts of the ancient world the rule about strangers was simple: put them to death. In today's world researchers have demonstrated how hard this human inclination is to eradicate.

For example, when people are grouped even in nonsensical ways, like by the last digit on their driver's license, they feel kinship with "their" group. Once this grouping is established, bias tends to persist.

Being in a group builds our self-worth. It makes us feel stronger and better about ourselves. We feel there is safety in numbers, and often people group themselves not so much to hurt outsiders as to feel more secure within their own skin. This behavior seems to be in our genes.

What's going on is not entirely your housemates' fault and not entirely your fault. They may think they are joshing you and you like the attention, and you may have waited too long to speak up.

The reality, of course, is your accent isn't funny. It is simply a difference from the group.

There are techniques to prevent belittling behavior. For one, when you meet someone new, take a serious attitude. Being serious usually prevents mocking from occurring. But when it does occur, instant firm correction is required.

It's like what happens when two people shake hands. They feel each other out, trying to exchange the right level of firmness. Most people return a handshake at an equal level, but some try to use a handshake to express dominance. When that happens it is appropriate to return the handshake with greater force.

Your housemates' behavior has become a habit, and habits are hard to break. It is now like a social norm they feel they must conform to, and nothing will change unless you take action.

Tell your girlfriend in all seriousness, "Stop this. It is hurting me." If she cares about you, she will not only stop it herself, she will have a private word with all the others. If the others are well-intentioned, they will respond once they understand your pain.

We have a huge capacity to respond to the suffering of others. Touching that vein in your girlfriend and your housemates will change what is happening.

Kipling wrote, "All the people like us are We, And everyone else is They." But this tendency can be overcome once everyone understands we are all just people.

Wayne & Tamara