Sarcasm: What It Is

The popularity of sarcasm in everyday life is undeniable. We see it on t-shirts, commercials and TV shows. It's found on websites and Facebook pages. Webster’s states the English word sarcasm has been in use since the mid-1600s. Its origin stems from the Greek verb "Sarkazein" meaning to “tear flesh like a dog and the noun “ Sarkasmos,” "a sneering or hurtful remark.” Although sarcasm is a humor type, it is generally regarded as the lowest form of wit. Humor and Sarcasm

 Use humor to lift people up instead of using sarcasm to put people down.

Use humor to lift people up instead of using sarcasm to put people down.

Sarcasm has its purpose. A modern definition states that sarcasm is “The use of words which are the opposite of what is actually intended - especially in order to insult, to show irritation, or to be funny.” For those who regularly employ sarcasm, they are often looking for a laugh at someone else's expense. Sarcasm can be dramatic or funny, as well as a way to disguise straightforward criticism or disapproval. 

Example: “Gosh, did you really wake up and decide that outfit makes you look good?” This off-hand remark can seem funny. However, might a sliver of honesty be lurking between the lines?  The speaker is perhaps using sarcasm to hide distaste for what is interpreted as a bad clothing choice. At the same time, a lack of nerve to state their truth leaches through.

Sarcasm requires deciphering intent. Is the speaker attempting humor, being intentionally offensive, aggressive or anger-provoking? Sarcasm is muddy communication. The listener is obliged to pause, attempt to determine truth and comprehend the intended point. Our brains zoom into overdrive trying to translate the "message behind the message." 

Besides spoken words, a listener scans for clues in body language, tone of voice and facial gestures. Is there a change in the speaker’s voice, a smirk, raised eyebrows or eye rolling? If the conversation is by text or phone, we may go into overdrive to translate the speaker's intentions - or miss them entirely.

Example: “Gosh, did you really wake up and decide that outfit makes you look good?” It takes additional time for the brain to process doublespeak. Hearts are inclined toward connection and sincerity. In this instance, the heart likely dives into protection mode and shuts down - attempting to make sense of mixed signals. If sarcasm is used aggressively, the mind hooks up with the heart to better ascertain what's really going on.

Sarcasm crosses boundaries. Aside from hidden meanings and bad intention, sarcasm stirs anxiety and depression. If the speaker frequently uses it, the listener may develop distress when they're together. It's confusing to know where they stand and how the speaker truly feels. The participants no longer bond or resonate in their interactions.

A defeatist attitude may develop. When sarcasm becomes predictable, new boundaries are required. It takes time for connections to recover and repair themselves in sarcastic-driven relationships.  Trust and safety have been compromised. The relationship is in peril, and true intentions are subverted. A power struggle is often the behind-the-scenes culprit. 

Example: “Gosh, did you really wake up and decide that outfit makes you look good?” If the listener hears this comment on a regular basis, self-esteem is impacted. The speaker may unintentionally use sarcasm as a way to gain power.  It may be completely unconscious, but it's still not okay. What's happening is more insidious and destructive than either participant acknowledges. 

Sarcasm crosses cultural lines. Sarcasm contains many shapes and forms. Certain cultures have less appreciation for it than others. Nuance doesn't work when we don't know another person well. Sarcasm is unreliable communication. In order to 'get' the message, all parties must share a common understanding. Clear, direct language opens channels and allows easy flow of ideas.

Example: “Gosh, did you really wake up and decide that outfit makes you look good?” Without a clear understanding of body language, facial gestures and which words are being stressed, the listener may simply respond with a yes answer and walk away from the speaker. The question in this instance has been interpreted 100% literally.

Want to free yourself from sarcasm?

Practice healthy communication without sarcasm. Listen and respond with genuine kindness. Every human has the right to be heard with understanding. Don’t pretend to listen. Carefully consider the topic and pause before you speak. 

Sarcasm is a habit. Pay attention to your words and attitude. Use your heart to help translate meaning before judging what is being shared. Stay on the path of connection and flow rather than the need to be right and having the final word.

Make it a goal to be clear with your words, body language, tone of voice and facial gestures. Mixed messages result in mixed results. Notice how you interact with people you like and those you don’t. How do you act? What words do you use? How do you feel after the conversation? Come up with ideas which allow you to stay consistent and steady regardless of who is with you.

Replace sarcasm with wit or irony. If you enjoy sharing humor, search for techniques which promote comfort and well-being with others rather than bringing out confrontational behaviors.

When unsure, you may ask someone if they are being sarcastic and why. Before you reach the last straw and walk out, say something like: “Help me to understand your comment. Why do you question my choice to wear this outfit?"