The Problem with Sarcasm

I was surprised recently by a discussion among members of a group of therapists describing how they use sarcasm in their personal lives with their children and their spouses. I had assumed they would understand why that’s probably not a good idea. Why? Because sarcasm isn’t humor. It’s hostility. And it makes people feel bad.

It may be challenging to accept this, especially if your response to my statement that sarcasm is not humor raised your hackles. Some even believe that sarcasm is a sign of high intelligence. Well, no. Well-developed wit is a sign of high intelligence. Wit is insightful, showing us the world in a slightly new way. Great wit is a high art.

Sarcasm, on the other hand, derives from Greek words that mean “tearing of the flesh.” Sarcasm is hostility disguised as humor. That’s why when someone says something sarcastic to you, you don’t feel good. Sarcasm is unsettling. If you challenge it, the person can say, “What? I was just kidding!” But it doesn’t feel like kidding. It feels like veiled criticism. Because that’s exactly what it is, regardless of its superficial deniability.

For some individuals who identify as highly sensitive persons (see the work of Elaine Aron to understand what this means), sarcasm is particularly biting. But most people respond negatively to it, whether they show it or not. Think about the last time someone made a sarcastic remark directed specifically at you. Maybe they made a comment about your “ballet shoes” if you were wearing hiking boots. Maybe they cut closer with something like, “Take all the time you need. The rest of the world can wait.” Did you appreciate it? Did it help you?

We hear the term passive-aggressive often to describe someone whose orientation is sarcastic. It means that on the surface, the person’s words and actions are neutral, but that underneath them lies a second layer of meaning which is aggressive. It doesn’t mean wavering between the two; it means both at once. Sarcasm is passive-aggressive speech.

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.

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.

If you are dealing with someone who is predictably sarcastic, remember that sarcasm becomes a habit. As such, over time it can seem untethered to the underlying psychological framework that produces it. As a result, a sarcastic person is likely to refute any suggestion from you that sarcasm might be hostile and cowardly. So what can you do?

You can describe the distress you feel when a sarcastic remark is directed at you. Perhaps you feel minimized; perhaps criticized; perhaps even showered with contempt. Helping someone see how painful such comments feel to you, regardless of the conscious intention of the speaker, has the potential to relieve you of having to endure sarcasm from them. And be sure to assert that yes, you can take a joke, when it is a joke and not veiled hostility.

Remember that you are right to experience discomfort in the presence of someone’s sarcasm. Your flesh is being torn, or the flesh of someone else is being torn in your presence. Sarcasm is not clever wordplay. Wit is clever wordplay. Encourage the latter.

If you find you tend toward sarcastic remarks yourself, ask yourself what you’re truly trying to convey to the other person. Maybe you can find a more direct way to say it. Or maybe you’ll decide it’s better left unsaid.

And next time you hear someone describe “biting sarcasm” as if it were a high art, you’ll hear the redundancy in the phrase and understand why it stings so much to witness it.

If passive-aggressive behavior is an issue in your life, consider meeting with a therapist.

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  • Jim

    August 23rd, 2018 at 1:47 PM

    I read this with interest because I often think of myself as sarcastic. As I read on, I was annoyed at myself for being so, then read further and decided that I wasn’t as sarcastic as I thought. I think I had a definition in mind for sarcasm that was too broad.
    As for wit, I think people often refer to me that way… with one of the standard prefixes: nit, half, or dim. :)
    Nice article, Sarah… it got me thinking and gave me a different perspective. At my age, that’s still refreshing.
    Jim

  • Bob J.

    September 21st, 2018 at 10:10 AM

    It took me a while to get back to this article. Thank you for posting it. Like Jim, I think of myself as being sarcastic. In affirmation of your article I found this passage in John Knowles “A Separate Peace”, (c) 1959 at page 22…”Turning a look of mock shock on me, “You don’t mean to infer that I talked too much!” Returning with interest his gaping shock, “You? Talk too much? How can you accuse me of accusing you of that!” As I said this was my sarcastic summer. It was only long after that I recognized sarcasm as the protest of people who are weak.” In differentiating wit and sarcasm, I fully understand. Your assertion that it makes people feel bad I think needs to be qualified. It does make some feel bad, but that is also a function of the relationship between the individuals. If you know the person well and your banter turns to sarcasm you can be fairly certain in the give and take of a sarcastic exchange, that the person won’t take offense, and none will be intended. Just my thoughts on this interesting discussion on how we interact, and the somewhat fragile sensibilities of the current generation.

  • Louise

    March 10th, 2019 at 3:30 PM

    Reading many of your articles and think you’re so insightful and a wonderful writer.

  • Sarah Swenson

    June 28th, 2019 at 11:39 AM

    Thank you, Louise. I am happy to know that my writing is meaningful to you and I appreciate your support.

  • Roxi

    April 21st, 2019 at 3:31 AM

    What is sad is that so many parents are teaching their children that sarcasm is an acceptable form of humor. My daughter-in-law, for example, is very passive-aggressive and uses sarcasm to ridicule and villify anyone she envies (and that is just about everyone). Her children are growing up just like her. So sad. It is very uncomfortable being around them – so I avoid the whole bunch as much as possible. So sad.

  • R

    October 30th, 2019 at 7:30 PM

    Sarcasm isn’t necessarily hostile. It can be aimed at a thing, like the design of an appliance or the wording of a sign. When it’s aimed at a person, hostility is a good guess. But aimed at a person’s statement or action or work product? There may be no intent at hostility at all.
    Perhaps you mean the lesser end of the spectrum of “hostility.” The one I reacted to above is ill-will, hatred, wanting to harm. But another is resistance, opposition, contentiousness, such as playing devil’s advocate- just looking at how a statement, act or product is wrong, short-sighted or not good enough, without any ill-will. Why look at something negatively? Perhaps to anticipate and remedy how it seems to others. Or perhaps it’s just the way it landed, where something overlooked or done poorly happens to seem much more significant than the great job done on other aspects.
    Yes, simple people often guess poorly and defensively about the intent behind a remark. But insensitivity to these people’s self-injurious interpretations is very different from hostility. Often the mental effort used to come up with something even mildly clever means less brain power is available for sensitivity. But again, lack of sensitivity isn’t hostility.
    You say sarcasm “makes people feel bad.” If I refer to an act by a politician in a sarcastic remark, that makes you feel bad? No. Or if I give a deeply sarcastic appraisal of my previous sentences- is that hostile, or just humble? Or is it just presenting another way of looking at things?
    Perhaps you have a habit of taking others sarcasm personally? So the statement that sarcasm makes people feel bad really should be it seems to make YOU feel bad? Consider that it’s your interpretation that makes you feel bad, not the statement. Attributing your feeling of being unsettled to someone else’s intention means you believe you can read their mind.
    You say, “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.” Not necessarily. Like with your example, “Take all the time you need. The rest of the world can wait.” Perhaps they realize they’re being unreasonably impatient and are playing at being wronged. After all, they’re waiting- they have plenty of time to play.
    Interpreting sarcasm as hostility to you implies that they think you’re important. Yet you even said that sarcasm can be a habit. As a habit, it’s just what the mind does, focusing on looking at things sarcastically. It’s not hostility, it’s just a mind playing with its own views. You have every right to take it personally. That’s just conceit, being ego-centric. And you have every right to do that.
    In general, you have no choice about what you think and feel. But with some practice, you can have choice about whether you believe it’s true or not.

  • Deni

    April 15th, 2020 at 7:04 PM

    I wonder whether women or men are the more sarcastic, and why this is so?

  • Gloria

    May 18th, 2020 at 9:00 AM

    My husband said am very mean person and am always mad ! And very sarcastic, and I believe something takes u here to be this person and when a person is criticized all the time u become nervous and always question ur self if I’m not doing it wrong he is going to get mad start screaming and then u become this person the is always nervous she is going to do something stupid or drop something or break iu know !!! And then he comes and started telling u u need to slow down u movin. I don’t know I was sleep I guess I hit it when I was sleeping I don’t know sorry I but it that’d not the point gloria and then I start getting nervous I started getting sarcastic and talking back so now he is more mad because I’m sarcastic and mean and always talking shit between my lips and now this is the way it is sometimes he will forget I’m here I’m his wife and don’t say nothing nicer or say u look pretty today like before and now I Finns out he don’t wanna have sex wit me because I’m always mad or I’m sarcastic so till I change so this gets me more mad because he thinks he is the victim or he is abuse but I’m not the one calling names like ur week u just stupid or keep talking keep been sarcastic or talking crap I’m going break ur teeth so I think people become sarcastic or mean or sad or mad because other people push u there !! But yes I will like to stop been sarcastic and have the balls to tell him what he said but then he will raise he’s voice in front of people till he emberrsing
    Ce

  • Pleiades

    January 3rd, 2021 at 7:15 PM

    I agree so much that sarcasm is hostility disguised as humor. Sarcasm is lost on me because I like to communicate genuinely with others and just say exactly what it is I feel or think. I do not like to make comments that can be misinterpreted by others, but then again I am not afraid of being vulnerable and I think that is something people that use sarcasm are afraid of to a certain degree. I never understood why using sarcasm or being sarcastic was something so prized by some. Maybe they think it makes them seem unique, cool or edgy? I just think it makes them seem like a jerk, to keep it simple. I also think it gives people an excuse to be a jerk to others while pretending to be funny or witty.

  • anon

    September 6th, 2021 at 10:59 PM

    sarcasm is only a problem for people who don’t understand it. The funniest people I have ever met have also been the most sarcastic. If you get offended by it, you either don’t understand it or are a literal thinker (a big sign of lower IQ, little imagination and very little problem solving/interpretation skills)

    Sarcasm is only hostile if you interpret it that way and if the person doing it is doing very obvious, simple sarcasm eg, i’m soooo impressed, that’s bitchy and IMO is idiot sarcasm, otherwise its unimaginative people getting annoyed at something they don’t understand and can’t do themselves.

    Why should funny people stop being funny because of thin skinned, sensitive individuals? grow a spine and a sense of humour

    If you have a problem with sarcasm, its you

  • Belva

    September 7th, 2021 at 1:18 PM

    Sarcasm is only an issue if you do not have the capacity to understand it. I’m not at all angry. I love life, I love my friends, my family, and even my job, and I find sarcasm incredibly humorous and quite cathartic. This sounds like an excuse for those who prefer to remain in their convenient little “the word revolves around me” bubbles of ignorance. None of us is responsible for the poor sad sacks incapable of finding the humor in life and situations, any more than we can be responsible for those who do. It has been my experience to observe the people who have an issue with it, are usually quite one dimensional, oversensitive and self absorbed people, who always seem to think everything is about them. There is an entire universe out there and it does not revolve around you. Stop trying to justify your own dislikes or insecurities by trying to invalidate someone else’s. Why can’t it just be? Why is everyone always trying to fit everyone else into their preconceived idea of how everyone should be? The ignorance is staggering.

  • sarcasm hater

    September 18th, 2021 at 12:26 PM

    Shut the heck up, anon! All people can be thin-skinned and anti-sarcasm all they want. I mean, who the heck are to force your love for on others sarcasm?!
    If anyone should grow a spine, it should be you, especially since you support Darwinism, which is bad stuff ‘cuz it craps on people who are weak. Well, newsflash: there will always be weak people in the world whether you like it or not.
    So the next time you find someone who can’t take sarcasm and jokes, let them be! Besides, people don’t have a grow a sense of humor if they don’t want to. Its their right to be humorless.

  • sarcasm hater

    September 18th, 2021 at 12:32 PM

    You know what, Belva? You’re a self-righteous and hypocritical person who criticizes sarcasm haters and paints ’em all with one brush. How closed-minded of you.
    You think that it’s your right to conform everyone to your way of thinking? Well, guess what? You’re the very type of person who you complained about. It’s ironic that you claimed all sarcasm haters to be those labels you ascribed to them when they’re reflections of you who are since you can’t respect people who refuse to tolerate sarcasm and jokes.
    If you wanna go around bein’ a complainer to people an’ suffer the consequences for it, you’ll have only yourself to blame. And if people who to be humorless their whole lives, it’s their choice.

  • anon

    September 18th, 2021 at 11:56 PM

    sarcasm hater… just as you’re allowed to hate sarcasm, I’m allowed to love it. just because you can’t see the benefits doesnt mean I cant enjoy it, it also means that just because you say sarcasm is evil, doesnt make it so…

    The actual problem here is the perople who take it personally and can’t see it as banter, messing around or jokes and who refuse to join in. You can tell when someone is serious or sarcastic. 99% of the time its very inclusive and the person is actually asking you to join in on the laugh – usually self deprecating, mud slinging laughter – The smart, mature, well balanced individuals usually appreciate sarcasm as they can laugh at themselves and understand the intent without starting a ridiculous argument or killing a conversation because they recognise that its a bit of a laugh…

    if you have ever experienced trauma from any of the issues talked about in this post… nobody cares, there’s no sarcasm victim syndrome, the only symptoms are that you’re a bit offended, life’s hard, don’t stop the people who know how to laugh because you’ve forgotten how to smile through it

  • anon

    September 20th, 2021 at 1:30 AM

    my last comment got deleted so I’ll make this one quick… its strange how I can’t reply to someone who blatantly told me to shut up but sarcasm’s too offensive?
    This page is a joke and the people who get offended are scientifically proven to be dumber, look it up, if you cant take it sarcasm hater, you are not a fully grown adult who has achieved full maturity or intelligence yet

  • ReznoR

    October 7th, 2021 at 3:17 AM

    Thank you for this text. The more I grow up, the more I understand how hurtful sarcasm is when used directly towards the person, especially in close relationships. I even read in Social Psychology that the first sign of when a couple will probably break up is increased personal sarcasm in their communication.
    I personally consider sarcasm funny but ONLY when it’s not used directly towards me (but rather towards some general event that is not related to myself, or when someone makes sarcastic jokes about themselves). When it’s used directly towards me, it’s a sign that the person doesn’t yet have the ability to clearly and emphatically say what they really have in mind (a skill that can be learned with time).

    I personally totally don’t agree with some opinions in the comments here. When I checked, they don’t seem to be backed by general science consensus at all.

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