Natural killer T (NKT) cells are innate T lymphocytes that are restricted by CD1d antigen-presenting molecules and recognize lipids and glycolipids as antigens. NKT cells have attracted attention for their potent immunoregulatory effects. Like other types of regulatory lymphocytes, a high proportion of NKT cells appear to be autoreactive to self antigens. Thus, as myeloid antigen-presenting cells (APCs) such as monocytes, dendritic cells (DCs) and myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSCs) constitutively express CD1d, NKT cells are able to interact with these APCs not only during times of immune activation but also in immunologically quiescent periods. The interactions of NKT cells with myeloid APCs can have either pro-inflammatory or tolerizing outcomes, and a central question is how the ensuing response is determined. Here we bring together published results from a variety of model systems to highlight three critical factors that influence the outcome of the NKT–APC interaction: (i) the strength of the antigenic signal delivered to the NKT cell, as determined by antigen abundance and/or T-cell receptor (TCR) affinity; (ii) the presence or absence of cytokines that costimulate NKT cells [e.g. interleukin (IL)-12, IL-18 and interferon (IFN)-α]; (iii) APC intrinsic factors such as differentiation state (e.g. monocyte versus DC) and Toll-like receptor (TLR) stimulation. Together with recent findings that demonstrate new links between NKT cell activation and endogenous lipid metabolism, these results outline a picture in which the functions of NKT cells are closely attuned to the existing biological context. Thus, NKT cells may actively promote tolerance until a critical level of danger signals arises, at which point they switch to activating pro-inflammatory immune responses.