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

    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.

    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

    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

    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

    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.

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