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Sarcasm permeates our culture and is a regular part of everyday conversations and interchanges. Comedy, in particular, uses sarcasm liberally.
I was reminded of this recently while watching an episode of Seinfeld and laughing at some of the sarcastic comments that are a regular part of Jerry’s responses to George, Elaine, and Kramer. It’s hilarious in that context, but sarcasm also has a dark side and can be deadly to our relationships with each other, especially intimate ones.
When is sarcasm okay to use, and under what circumstances, and when not?
Let’s start with a definition.
What is Sarcasm?
Here are three definitions:
“Sarcasm is a form of communication intended to convey the opposite of what is literally said” (Golden, 2022).
“Sarcasm is an indirect form of speech intentionally used to produce a particular dramatic effect on the listener” (McDonald, 1999).
“Sarcasm refers to the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say, especially in order to insult someone, or to show irritation, or just to be funny” (Merriam-Webster).
So what can we take from these?
- Sarcasm is indirect and requires the receiver to decode it.
- It’s potent and has a dramatic effect.
- Someone can use it to insult, show irritation, or be amusing.
However you cut it, sarcasm likely has an emotional impact, and it’s not always a good one.
Let’s review the positive and negative aspects of sarcasm, and then I’ll give you some guidelines for considering when and if to use it.
There are two emotions most associated with sarcasm: these are anger and humor. We’ll get to anger in the next section, but let’s start with humor, which is more often associated with the positive side of sarcasm.
1. Create Intimacy
When done without malice to tease affectionately or deliver inside jokes, sarcasm can create intimacy and bond us together. Good friends, romantic partners, close family members, and even work colleagues sometimes use sarcasm to build camaraderie. Inside jokes are especially common for people who feel closely connected.
2. Relieve Tension
A second positive effect is using sarcasm to relieve tension and stress during trying situations. A humorous, sarcastic remark delivered during a difficult time can ease anxiety and provide comic relief.
3. Increase Creativity
Third, sarcasm used in the workplace between people who trust each other has been shown by research to increase creativity. That’s because sarcasm requires more thinking outside the box. If you have to come up with creative word choices and phrases, it primes your brain to be open to more inventive solutions to problems.
4. Give a Backhanded Compliment
The last positive is that sometimes sarcasm is used to offer backhanded compliments. For example, if your friend who put on a dinner party frets that no one liked what she cooked, you could say, “Yeah, it looks like it was awful! There’s not a bite left! Everyone scarfed it down! Pretty sure they hated it!”
You would probably make everyone laugh, including the cook, but it has a little bite. Would it have been better to say, “It was great! Everyone obviously loved it because there’s not a morsel left. You did a great job, as usual!?” Which would feel better? Most likely, this second one.
Now for the negatives.
Sarcasm is damaging when used to criticize or deliver a passive-aggressive expression of frustration, annoyance, anger, envy, or contempt. In any of those circumstances, it can:
- Create tension
- Undermine trust
- Divide and distance
- Build resentment
When the person delivering sarcasm aims at the receiver’s vulnerable or soft spots, they risk hurting the other person, even if they shrug it off and laugh. This is especially true when the feeling behind the sarcastic remark smacks of hostility or anger. The aggression comes through.
It’s even worse when the person delivering the message denies their aggression by saying, “I was only kidding.” Now we’re moving into gaslighting.
The questions are:
- What’s the rationale for delivering a sarcastic remark if there’s the possibility that it could hurt the receiver or create confusion?
- Why not be direct about what’s bothering you without insulting or attacking someone?
Sarcasm used with aggression turns into contempt. You’re asserting your superiority over the other person. You might as well just come out and say, “I’m better than you!”
Research has shown contempt to be one of the most destructive devices in the breakup of marriages (John Gottman). It’s damaging to any relationship.
A Few More Considerations
Before we get to guidelines, there are a few more bits of information regarding gender differences in using sarcasm that are good to know.
Research has validated that men are more prone to using sarcasm than women. I would guess this is partly due to men’s upbringing to be more stoic and less directly expressive when verbalizing feelings. That has changed significantly over the last fifty years, yet it’s still a part of male socialization.
Engaging in sarcasm is a vehicle of male bonding to some degree, making it more acceptable. However, it still can have the same negative impact on men, although they may not show it or verbalize it. Women are less sarcastic overall but more so when talking to men than to other women.
Lastly, countries that value individualism, like the US and other Western cultures, use more sarcasm than countries that value collectivism. That doesn’t mean that aggression is different in those countries, but rather that it’s expressed through other mechanisms.
Now, let’s look at guidelines for use.
When and When Not to Use Sarcasm
Use sarcasm only when it’s appreciated equally by the giver and receiver.
Obviously, this means that before you make a sarcastic remark, ask yourself if the person you’re speaking to will find it as humorous as you do, if that’s your intent, or if they’ll appreciate the meaning behind it. If not, don’t do it.
Be extremely careful with using sarcasm to poke fun at someone’s soft spots or vulnerabilities.
It’s better to avoid doing this at all. Why take a chance?
Never use sarcasm when you’re angry, annoyed, frustrated, or feeling any hostile intent whatsoever.
Sarcasm can only make things worse and prevent you from resolving any issues that need attention. It will push the other person further away and build resentment. If you have a problem with someone, approach it directly. Say what you mean and consider the other person’s reactions, feelings, and possible responses before proceeding.
Avoid being contemptuous or disrespectful in any way, especially when using sarcasm.
Contempt is destructive. Verbalizing honest thoughts and feelings about an issue is fine, but doing it sideways with contempt will bring nothing but more destruction.
If you’re unsure, ask yourself:
“Might I hurt this person’s feelings by saying (whatever it is)?”
That will usually clear it up quickly for you.
It is fun sometimes to think up sarcastic remarks because it’s creative, and you can feel clever when you come up with a good one. I’ve done this many times myself. However, it’s not so brilliant when you truly consider how somebody will receive it and make them feel. Sometimes it’s just hurtful.
In dealing with couples in marriage counseling, I’ve noted that those who use a lot of sarcasm and, ultimately, contempt don’t last. The accrued negativity destroys the relationship over time.
The bottom line is to think hard before making a sarcastic remark to be sure you don’t hurt someone in the process.
That’s all for today.
Hope you have a great week!
All my best,
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Dauphin, P. V. Sarcasm in relationships. University of Pennsylvania. https://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/plc/communication/valerie.htm
Golden, B. (2022, Feb. 17). Key facts about sarcasm that can improve your relationships. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/overcoming-destructive-anger/202202/key-facts-about-sarcasm-can-improve-your-relationships
Lisitsa, E. The four horsemen: Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/
McDonald, S. (1999). Exploring the process of inference generation in sarcasm: A review of normal and clinical studies. Brain and Language 68(3), 486-506. DOI: 10.1006/brln.1999.2124
Pederson, N. (2018, Dec. 5). Sarcasm: A clever way to destroy marriages. Medium. https://medium.com/@naomipedersen/sarcasm-a-clever-way-to-destroy-marriages-6cbaf5e32100
Rockwell, P. & Theriot, E. M. (2001). Culture, gender, and gender mix in encoders of sarcasm: A self-assessment analysis. Communication Research Reports, 18(1), 44-52. DOI:10.1080/08824090109384781