The Many Shades of Mean

From passive to aggressive, all shades of shade can be equally hurtful. Read on for expert advice on how to respond (if at all). 

Tomasz Walenta


Throwing shade may be a new favorite sport in the celeb world— but how do you deal when you’re the target of this subtle form of spite? We tell you how to spot it and how to stop it.

Were you there when Katy Perry maybe called Taylor Swift a mean girl in sheep’s clothing? In case you missed it, here’s a recap: Katy didn’t name Tay in her icy tweet, but the Twitterverse just knew who she was talking about—and the speculation kept the mean remark alive for a painfully long time. 

What Katy did is called throwing shade, and it’s a whole new kind of mean. Whereas classic meanness is always obvious, shade is more subtle; whereas old-school cruelty is a punch in the gut, shade is a seemingly harmless side-eye. Among celebs and in the media, shade is touted as an art form, and people love to follow along. That’s why social media hosts what seems to be a never-ending shade battle, with Twitter-shade and Insta-shade flying in all directions. 

But make no mistake: Shade is toxic, especially online! It allows people to be mean in a sneaky way—so a bully could get away with hurting you without ever having to see the consequences. “Meanness is louder and lasts longer online because the Internet is both a mask and a megaphone,” says Dr. Lisa Jacobs, a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania. 

So how do you call someone out when they’re hiding behind a sub-tweet (a mean tweet minus a victim’s name) or a sketchy Instagram caption? And how do you battle meanness if you aren’t sure it was intentional? We’ve got expert advice to help you deal with every shade of shade.



The Shade






 The Speculation 

Whether this person was a friend or not, the compliment-plus-diss combo can be so confusing. Should you be flattered or full of rage? They might not have even understood that what they said is hurtful.

 The Solution 

Depending on your relationship with the shade-thrower, our experts say it could be worth it to suss it out. “If they’re a friend, pull them aside and say, ‘I don’t think you meant harm, but what you said was hurtful to me—what did you mean by that?’” says Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and co-author of Words Wound. And if you don’t consider the person a friend? Ignore it, then remind yourself, “I know who I am and what I’m good at.” Any reaction might encourage a true bully to continue.


The Shade






The Speculation 

That shade was totally served to you...right? Sub-tweets like this are a part of Shade-Throwing 101, and they’re super-puzzling. Because you can’t prove the comment was about you, you may feel especially powerless.

The Solution

As tempting as it might be to retaliate, being the first to point a finger could only make things worse. Our experts say to close the tweet immediately. “If a comment doesn’t directly involve you, simply ignore it. If you don’t give bullies the response they want, they’ll move on,” says Dr. Jacobs. It’s the same reason animals in the wild play dead when they’re getting attacked: “Aggressive people enjoy a fight and like to create spectacles,” she adds, “but you don’t have to be a part of it.”


The Shade






The Speculation 

No doubt about it: In this case, you know you’re the target. And if you don’t handle the situation with care, a direct callout like this one can start a full-on social media war.

The Solution

Your fingers are probably itching to strike back, but responding could pull you down a rabbit hole of drama. Whether the bully is a friend or not, our experts recommend giving them the snip. “Block them, unfriend them, and cut them off in real life,” says Kate Roberts, a Boston-based child and family psychologist. “It’s a difficult thing to do, but unless the person owns up to their mistake, the relationship is not worth keeping.” If the drama escalates, grab screenshots of the comments and get help from an adult you trust.

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