What Does Poke the Bear Mean?

(Don’t) Poke the Bear Meaning

Definition: To do something that might provoke someone into becoming angry or causing problems.

People often use this in the negative statement don’t poke the bear. Another similar expression is don’t poke the dragon.

Origin of Poke the Bear

This expression comes from the imagery of what would happen if a person literally poked a bear.

Imagine if someone found a sleeping bear. That bear would remain harmless if the person left it alone. However, if the person walked over, poked the bear, and woke it up, it would start a big problem.

This expression gained popularity in the latter half of the 1900s.

Examples of Poke the Bear

poking the bear meaning In the example below, a husband and wife are talking about the husband’s parents.

Kip: My parents were fighting with each other again earlier today.

Caroline: Oh no. Maybe they just need someone to mediate. I’m going to offer to help them.

Kip: No, please don’t. They just stopped fighting an hour ago. They were just sitting quietly when I left their house.

Caroline: Are you sure? Maybe they just need to talk calmly about it.

Kip: Trust me. It wouldn’t be a calm discussion at all. Don’t poke the bear. It will just make them fight again.

sometimes you poke the bear The next example involves two friends who are studying for an exam.

Brian: I’m not sure how to do this problem.

Raj: Me neither. I think Stacy knows how to do it. Should we ask her?

Brian: I wish we could, but she’s busy working on her final project.

Raj: So? It’s just a quick question. It wouldn’t take her long to explain it to us, I’m sure.

Brian: It doesn’t matter. She hates being interrupted, especially when she’s on a tight deadline.

Raj: Well, how else are going to figure this out? I’m going to knock on her door.

Brian: No! Don’t poke the bear. We’ll ask her when she’s done. We’ll work on the other problems until then.

Raj: Okay, fine.

More Examples

This excerpt is from an article about ISIS committing vandalism by destroying ancient art.

  • On the other, it is an outrageous stick with which to poke the bear — including and perhaps especially the United States. The enemies of Salafist Muslim militants are essential to engage, if the cult’s apocalyptic endgame is to unfold. –LA Times

This is an excerpt about the importance of sometimes trying to provoke someone through political satire.

  • “It’s what SNL does so well. It’s political satire. It’s there to skewer and kind of be a watchdog in a playful way of what’s actually happening. It’s just that perhaps we have gone further in reality than we thought we ever would. So I’m glad that SNL still is there to lovingly poke the bear.” –USA Today


The phrase poke the bear means disturbing someone and thusly causing trouble.