Sarcasm Can Be Useful. It’s Also Dangerous.

At our core, most people want to be seen as good with words. Some people want to be valued for their kindness and compassion. Some people want to be appreciated for their knowledge and expertise. Other people want to be welcomed for their charisma and presence. And other people, still, want to be known for their humor and wit.

Under the classification of humor, few things in spoken and written language are more complicated than sarcasm. Even coming up with a clear definition is a little tricky. It’s probably safe to say it’s something you know when you see, although part of the complexity of sarcasm is that it can sometimes be missed entirely.

What Exactly Is Sarcasm?

Here’s how Miriam-Webster defines it:

1a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain

2aa mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual

bthe use or language of sarcasm

Here’s what Wikipedia says:

Sarcasm is “a sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark; a bitter gibe or taunt.” Sarcasm may employ ambivalence, although sarcasm is not necessarily ironic. Most noticeable in spoken word, sarcasm is mainly distinguished by the inflection with which it is spoken and is largely context-dependent.

And, in probably the most honest (if brutal) attempt, Urban Dictionary defines sarcasm as:

1. The ability to insult idiots without them realizing it.
Idiot: I beat up a ten year old today. 
You: That’s impressive! (with a hint of sarcasm) 
Idiot: I know, right!
2. A tongue of which the user speaks of something the complete opposite of what the user means. It often has the best comedic value.
Ex. 1: “I’m okay. Don’t mind the gaping wound and the sword protruding from my back. I’m fine. Feel like a million [expletive] bucks, [profanity].”

Ex. 2:
“Is your car stuck in the mud?”
“No, no, of course not. I’m only practicing how to spray mud using my tires. [Profanity].”

Looking at the various definitions, a few things stand out.

  • Sarcasm is usually sharp, cutting, or biting.
  • Sarcasm is usually directed either at another person or oneself.
  • Often (but not always), sarcasm employs ironic language, or the use of words that are meant to mean the opposite of what the words would mean if taken in a normal context.
  • In spoken language, sarcasm is often achieved by vocal tone.

Depending on the situation, the attempt at sarcasm might be obvious — and intended as obvious — while other times it might not be so. Sarcasm is harder to pick out in written communication, for example.

Like language in general, sarcasm is a weapon that can be used for all kinds of purposes, some useful, some destructive.

Where Sarcasm Can Be Useful

There are some times when sarcasm can be a useful tool that enhances relationships. For example, in the right context sarcasm can help people cope with a common problem. (“This is a lot of fun, isn’t it?”) I’ve seen a sprinkle of that sort of sarcasm help a group weather a particularly difficult situation.

Used with skill, sarcasm can even be used to diffuse a tense moment, especially if the sarcasm is used in a way that doesn’t attack the other person, such as a self-deprecating remark or a sarcastic comment about something that isn’t directly relevant to the conflict. I’ve seen times where, for example, mock blame of the weather, or bad coffee, or some political figure helped to diffuse a situation. It doesn’t work in all cases, but it can.

There is also some evidence that sarcasm has intellectual benefits. One behavioral scientist at Harvard Business School noted that, in her research, sarcasm could improve creativity within groups.

She speculates why:

Why might sarcasm enhance creativity? Because the brain must think creatively to understand or convey a sarcastic comment, sarcasm may lead to clearer and more creative thinking. To either create or understand sarcasm, tone must overcome the contradiction between the literal and actual meanings of the sarcastic expressions. This is a process that activates, and is facilitated by, abstraction, which in turn promotes creative thinking. Consider the following example, which comes from a conversation one of my co-authors on the research (Adam Galinsky, of Columbia) had a few weeks before getting married. His fiancée woke him up as he was soundly asleep at night to tell him about some new ideas she has for their upcoming wedding next month –many of which were quite expensive. Adam responded with some ideas of his own: “Why don’t we get Paul McCartney to sing, Barack Obama to give a benediction and Amy Schumer to entertain people.” His comment required his fiancée to recognize that there is a distinction between the surface level meaning of the sentence (actually signing up these people to perform) and the meaning that was intended.

There is a caution, though. This same author points out that the same study that showed increased creativity also showed increased interpersonal conflict. While I’m sure Mr. Galinsky in the example above was not happy about being woken up at night, hopefully his fiancée appreciated the joke.

Where Sarcasm Can Be Dangerous

Whenever you’re talking about words that have meaning beyond their face value, there is room for misunderstanding. If I say, “wow, that was a really great party,” and say it in that flat tone that we often associate with sarcasm, what do I mean? Am I suggesting that the party was terrible, or merely mediocre? Am I suggesting the party-goers were less than desirable, or am I attacking the person who threw the party? If the comment in question was made to the party organizer, there could well be a misunderstanding on the part of the person receiving the comment.

Sarcasm is treacherous with people you don’t know — they don’t have enough context with you to know how to perceive your words — but it can also be a problem with the people you’re closest to. Trust is a crucial component of close relationships, and sarcasm can be the verbal equivalent of bringing a knife into the relationship. Use of sarcasm can create mistrust, forcing the other person to feel like they have to be more guarded in the words they hear. In some ways, this can be worse than outright insults, because in sarcasm 1) there has to be a mental calculation as to whether the words are bad or not and 2) sarcasm can imply that the other person in question is somehow stupid or incompetent.

Some mental health experts have pointed out that sarcasm can be a sign of other issues. A life coach, writing in a Utah-based publication, points out that “sarcastic comments, though humorous, are usually passive-aggressive, mean and uncomfortable for the people receiving them.” One psychologist in Psychology Today goes a step farther, arguing that “sarcasm is actually hostility disguised as humor,” a point echoed by a licensed mental health counselor. The counselor argues:

Sarcasm directed at an individual is also an indicator that someone doesn’t have the courage to come right out and say whatever is bothering them. Or they lack the fortitude to realize it’s really none of their business what others choose to do, regardless of how “annoying” they may find someone’s particular actions or comments or even lifestyle.

While I think it’s a bit dangerous to assume all sarcasm is like that, some of it certainly can be, especially when it’s aimed at a person. I also think that overuse of sarcasm, especially, might be a sign of underlying issues that aren’t being resolved.

The Takeaway: How to Use Sarcasm

There are a lot of different ideas on how to use sarcasm, but it seems to me there are a few principles to consider.

One, use sarcasm sparingly. Not only does overusing sarcasm reduce its humor value, but it elevates the risk of hurting people in the process. If you use it, make it rare. Or, put another way: you’re rarely going to go wrong not using it.

Two, try to avoid directing it at specific people. Beware any sarcastic comment which has the potential to cause harm to other people. Sarcasm can be genuinely funny at times, but not so much when there is a casualty.

Three, be especially careful about it when communication is written. Tone of voice and body language are a big part of any communication … things that you don’t have when you write, such as through email, text, or social media. Sarcasm without context can be the worst kind.

Four, be aware of why you’re sarcastic. Is it a genuine attempt to be funny, or is it a reaction rooted in frustration, irritation, or hostility? Are you trying to improve a situation, or are you trying to attack someone else? If your motives are less than noble, it’s not bad to do a little self-reflection … and maybe try to make some changes in the way you talk, especially to those closest to you.


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