Most of us encounter some form of sarcasm on a daily basis. We are bombarded with it through the mainstream media and on social media. We experience it in our jobs with clients and coworkers. Many of us regularly engage in sarcasm with our friends and family members.
But why is it so pervasive? Why are we sarcastic? And what are we really doing when we use sarcasm? These are important questions to ask ourselves, especially as we approach the holiday season—a time of giving and thanksgiving when many of us look forward to coming together, but dread encounters that, somewhere between dishing up and exchanging goodbye hugs, wind up turning south.
To fully understand sarcasm, we need to consider its relationship with irony.
Irony connects us with a mysterious universal law of life. We hit all the stop lights when we are in a hurry. We lose all our money we try to get rich quick. She is disobedient when he tries to control her. He runs away when she clings to him. She suddenly likes herself once she says no to what she knows will make others happy. He finally finds happiness when he is forced to think of everyone but himself.
Irony is losing our job and retirement plan in a recession and then returning to a wealth of love for our family as a result. Irony is giving up a porn addiction and having the best sex of our life. It is the experience of being alone when we are together and feeling connected when we are alone. It is discovering freedom in restraint, power in surrender, and comfort in chaos. It is delaying gratitude to receive everything we’ve ever wanted with patience. And finally fighting back to discover peace.
Real-life irony is powerful. It is an experience of creation calling us to balance, calling us back to our center.
Irony hints at the unique underlying meaning to our lives. It is everywhere. We all experience it firsthand at some point. Life is constantly teaching us with irony.
Sarcasm is powerful because it embodies irony. But it is seldom used in a healthy way. There are generally two kinds of sarcasm. There is sarcasm that helps and sarcasm that hurts.
Sarcasm that helps is rare and beautiful. It extends from feelings of care and support. It can bring joy and laughter for all—attempting to sooth, unite, and validate in an entertaining way.
Examples of Healthy Sarcasm, Just a Click Away
Osho’s discourse on the magical word fuck is just the right combination of naughty and nerdy. It validates the relationship almost all adults have with expletives and it gives some creative advice pertaining to your morning routine: “Just when you get up, repeat the mantra ‘Fuck you’ five times…it clears your throat too!”
In the film Easy A, the Penderghast family bonds during a conversation about being late bloomers. When their son asks, “Why’s that matter? I’m adopted!” Stanley Tucci’s character exclaims, “What?!! Oh my God! Who told you?!!” despite the fact that the entire family already knows he’s adopted, in part because of the racial differences between mother, father, and son. The familial discourse is filled with examples of sarcasm used in a caring, humorous, and uplifting way.
In the final scene of Cars 3, Cruz Ramirez and Lightning McQueen exchange loving trash talk before they begin her training, making light of ways they have mocked each other in the past and putting those hard feelings behind them.
These are wonderful examples of sarcasm’s power to bring joy and laughter. On a more personal level, sarcasm can be used to lighten the mood and bring humor and soothing to a stressful situation.
These forms of humor extend from feelings of care and support. They are evidence of our empathy. On the other hand, though, there is sarcasm that retaliates, divides, disorients, knocks one off balance, or attacks—always attempting to cause harm in some way, even if that intent to harm is subconscious in the perpetrator or goes unrecognized by the victim.
Almost always, sarcasm serves as a way to avoid directly expressing core feelings. In the pivotal scene of Goodwill Hunting, young Will is doggedly assaulting Sean with sarcastic insults when he is met with a masterful demonstration of the power of authenticity and vulnerability. Sean ends his thoughtful response with a sarcastic remark to Will, “Your move chief,” as if to say, “Now we can go back to your sarcastic bullshit if you want. You decide.”
Most sarcasm comes from a place of fear. We fear a lack of safety or being dominated in some way, so we pre-emptively attack to ensure dominance in conversation. For many, this very simple and primitive defense mechanism can become so consuming that it evolves into a sarcasm-dependent survival-of-the-fittest way of engaging reality.
Separating Sarcasm from Healthy Humor
Healthy humor occurs at no one’s expense. It brings an emotional experience of joy and excitement. This is because there is always the discovery of something new or the reminder of an important truth in a punchline that connects us with what’s real rather than further dividing us from ourselves and others. The sudden insight or surprise causes a release of neurotransmitters and endorphins and if that experience is shared in a loving and supportive way, there can be the release of other healthy healing hormones as well.
But too often in our culture we use sarcasm in a hurtful way, pairing that release of neurotransmitters with hurting each other. When we use sarcasm in a defensive way, we are actually taking pleasure in and often inviting others to take pleasure in the pain of another or even in the act of hurting another.
During Act Two of Iphelia: Awakening the Gift of Feeling, Ariana mocks Iphelia by drawing a picture of her holding up her artwork and proclaiming, “I love feelings!” Tyisha and Sing find humor in the act while Neal and Zack are painfully concerned for Iphelia’s feelings.
In addition to serving as a means of securing dominance in conversation, sarcasm can also be a veiled way of expressing fear, anger, hurt, and mistrust. Sarcasm in all its forms, including mocking, teasing, and jocular name-calling, is relatively socially acceptable, and it can be hard to sort out the genuine good of healthy humor from unhealthy uses of sarcasm—especially when we think our sarcastic remark might teach someone a lesson we’re sure they need to learn.
This hardly ever works. Instead of introspecting and considering changing his behavior, the intended target more often focuses his energy on summoning a clever retort or feeling vindicated in his behavior because he now sees us as an adversary, not someone he can learn from.
Mocking and teasing uses of sarcasm can be symptomatic of unresolved feelings we experience both physically and emotionally in certain relationships and situations.
It may feel safer to get a jab in, then retreat with “I’m just joking with you,” than to share the real feelings that fuel mocking forms of sarcasm.
We save face by using sarcasm because we aren’t making ourselves vulnerable. Our statements can be laughed off, and we know everyone in earshot is conditioned to laugh or at least be quiet (otherwise they risk earning a reputation of being “too sensitive”). Sarcasm shuts the door on dialogue about the topic at hand—whether it’s obvious or an underlying current we might need to explore. We dodge the need to admit the intensity of our own feelings and we miss the opportunity to strengthen our character and more fully realize our true self.
Effectively executed sarcasm ensures the situation is about the laugh rather than about the real feelings at play. By saving face, we jeopardize ever recognizing our true feelings in uncomfortable moments. We rob ourselves of opportunities to communicate our hopes and fears genuinely and without pretense.
There is a time when the clever punch lines need to be put away so we can say what we mean and ask for what we want. Being able to do so evidences the maturity, vulnerability, and centering in the self that will allow us to enjoy and execute healthy humor later.
That same maturity, vulnerability, and centering can prevent us from being shocked and perturbed when others use sarcasm and humor in not-so-healthy ways, whether that’s in the workplace, online, or around the Christmas tree.
Tips for Getting Centered and Responding to Sarcasm Within
If you’re still scratching your head, wondering how to know if you use sarcasm healthfully or if you can recognize unhealthy sarcasm, consider this:
Your first priority should be an examination of whether you’re using sarcasm in a healthy way.
- Feel your feelings. Pay attention to what you are feeling and practice allowing those feelings expression. Eventually you’ll find that you have become less calloused and more likely to notice what sarcastic behaviors come from a place of malice, fear, or shame.
- Practice self-honesty. See if you can identify any unconscious motives for using unhealthy sarcasm. Ask yourself these questions: Am I afraid? Am I preemptively attacking in an attempt to keep myself safe? Am I avoiding vulnerability or real intimacy? Do I feel the need to impress others with how clever I am? Am I compensating for deep-seated feelings of inferiority? If any of these are true then the energy exerted to be sarcastic might be better invested in aspiring to be the person you really want to be rather than attempting to control how you are perceived.
- Refrain. If you notice the urge to use sarcasm rising, take a deep breath before the sarcastic remark comes out. Begin noticing your feelings—even the quietest, most uncomfortable, or most surprising ones—to see if you can identify what core feelings were instigating the urge and what it is that you might really need to express.
- Restate. When you notice you’ve used sarcasm in an unhealthy way, you can say something like, “That’s not the way I wanted to say that; let me say it again…” Then give the core feeling direct expression and say what you really want to say.
Responding to Sarcastic Encounters With Sincerity
Sometimes an interaction can take on a sarcastic tone when we least expect it. While you can do your part to avoid unhealthy sarcasm, if you find yourself sensing that someone else’s sarcasm is taking the wheel, here are some ways you can honor your feelings and put your new knowledge of sarcasm to work for the good of everyone involved:
- Make very sincere inquiries. In intimate relationships especially, you can ask “Are you trying to tell me something?” “What are you really saying here?”
- Ask for the behavior to change. “Can you please dial back the sarcasm?” “Can you please say what you really want to say?” “It sounds like you’re making a joke of something you really need to express.”
- Educate. “I read this really powerful article about sarcasm. Did you know that most sarcasm is used to hide or compensate for more vulnerable feelings of fear and insecurity?” “I’ve been thinking a lot about how I use sarcasm lately and this is what I’ve noticed…”
- Be silent. Sometimes not laughing or retorting or speaking at all is the best way to say what needs to be said. Especially when you’ve already supported a person in becoming conscious of the behavior by asking for a change, not engaging their sarcasm can make space for the feelings that are fueling it to drop so everyone involved can take a breath and redirect their energy.
Want to read a personal account of struggling with and feeling out sarcasm? Check out Linsey’s reflection on writing about sarcasm (and what pillow fights have to do with it).
This article refers to Iphelia: Awakening The Gift of Feeling, a graphic novel for the inner children of grown men and women. It is the story of a girl born with a special gift of sensitivity, told through 90 pages of visually stunning images that animate the feeling-level of experience through color, texture, shape and motion, making it perfect for young children, too. Iphelia is on the web at www.iphelia.com and www.ifeelya.com, or visit her on Facebook @iphelia