In Defense of Sarcasm

Having given up (or all but given up) alcohol, white sugar, white flour, swearing, red meat and soft drinks, I thought the only things left were caffeine, chocolate and butter. It is a better man than I that can give up these last three. Daily walks, and almost daily swims are routine in our household. We work, help others, and keep to ourselves. So, pardon my surprise when the “no sarcasm” speak in recent years has risen from a whisper to a scream, coming from communication consultants, management consultants, human resource professionals and even counselors. How did sarcasm get elevated to a vice? Wait…Can something actually be elevated to a vice?

The scads of blogs and articles suggesting to stuff sarcasm on a shelf illustrate sarcasm as offensive and rude. Certainly that type of sarcasm has no place at work or in a relationship you want to keep. But I must protest. Sarcasm as a form of humor can be delightfully funny, illustrate the absurdity of human behavior, and even be educational. Perhaps in this world of sound bites, when advice is dispensed from the internet’s version of a candy machine, it is easy to suggest sarcasm should be extinct. After all, it’s not as if sarcasm is protected by the Endangered Species Act. So today, in “prose” slightly longer than ingredients on a cereal box, but shorter than a lawyer’s “brief,” allow me to illustrate some good (and maybe even great) traditional uses of sarcasm.

Sarcasm—Touches the Funny Bone without a Sting.

 The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm by James Napoli, provides examples of both stinging sarcasm, and also samples that are silly and fun. See what you think about these definitions:

“Compatible: The state of being able to coexist congenially for human beings; it is far more achievable with dogs.”

“Decaf: Coffee that doesn’t work.”

“Headstrong: A quality that we admire in a successful business person and a quality we will do anything within our power to crush in a teenager.”

“Rabbi: A learned man well versed in the laws of his faith, who nonetheless seems to keep walking into a bar with a priest and a minister.”

 

Sarcasm is not the first “tool” in life that is effective when used correctly, but when used incorrectly, can yield a bad result.

 

Sarcasm’s Critics Abound.

The references to sarcasm appearing in many places throughout the internet illustrate the disdain that many people have for sarcasm, and even those who use it. Here are a few phrases that appear repeatedly:

  • Sarcasm is “the lowest form of wit” (technically that may be the pun, which is another of my favorites);
  • “Sarcasm is for cowards;”
  • “Toxic workplaces are filled with sarcasm;” and
  • “Sarcasm promotes distrust in the workplace.”

 

Part of the problem is in the definition of sarcasm. For instance, www.dictionary.com defines sarcasm as a “noun. 1. Harsh or bitter derision or irony. 2. A sharply ironical taunt, sneering or cutting remark.” Even Merriam-Webster defines sarcasm in dark tones: “1. A cutting or contemptuous remark. 2. Ironic criticism or reproach.”

In fact, when you define sarcasm in this manner, you can see why sarcasm gets a bad rap! But, the current book definition narrowly defining sarcasm only provides a glimpse into the uses of sarcasm. Sarcasm may be ironic, sassy and perhaps snappy, but it certainly doesn’t have to be surly or snarky.

 

Sarcasm Elevates the Conversation.

Tom Lehrer, retired professor, singer and songwriter, is an artist in using sarcasm to highlight issues requiring attention. In That was the Year that was, recorded in 1965, Lehr’s introduction to his song, “National Brotherhood Week,” is an excellent example of a positive use of sarcasm. Paraphrasing, Lehrer, “We all agree that we ought to love one another. I know not all people love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that.” The album/cd is dripping with sarcasm, highlighting political and social issues that the U.S. has faced, and in some cases, still faces to this day, including:

  • Dangers of nuclear proliferation in “MLF Lullaby” and “So Long, Mom,”
  • The importance of the First Amendment in “Smut,”
  • Warning of air and water pollution in “Pollution,”

In today’s politically correct world, Lehrer’s messages may attract criticism. Having a sassy sense of humor doesn’t make a person bad. Nor is a message delivered with sarcasm necessarily negative. Hundreds of thousands of people still find Lehrer’s messages funny. Of course, Lehrer isn’t without controversy even in his more recent comments, but his messages still are ironic. “When I was in college, there were certain words you couldn’t say in front of a girl. Now you can say them, but can’t say ‘girl.’”  Lehrer is not making fun of nor demeaning an individual. He’s not passing judgment. He is merely pointing out another social item for us to consider.

From where I sit, we could use a little more humor and a lot less hate in the world—even if the humor comes in the form of satire and sarcasm. In fact, following the recent healthcare debate, President Trump tried lightening the mood within a bi-partisan group when he pointed out that he “never knew politics could be so much fun.” There’s some sarcasm that didn’t hurt anyone, from a man who is not known for comforting others with words.

 

Blanket Statements are smothering our Sensibility.

There are definitely some horrible uses of sarcasm. And, in an age where people enjoy developing more and more rules to stop and even punish our behavior, it’s not surprising sarcasm has made the hit list. Even the marketing gurus share some blame when telling us to keep our messages short. Brevity can lead to oversimplification. You’ve seen some of the numbered lists like:

  • Three things great leaders never say
  • Five ways to ruin a relationship
  • Seven deadly sins (Whoops. Maybe the Ten Commandments and this list were the inspiration to current day bulleted lists?)

In the quest to keep everything simple, we are making “rules” (and even laws) that don’t take into consideration how we live, and the fact that one size really doesn’t fit all. This is an entire topic that requires exploration. But for brevity’s sake, I’ll leave that gem for another day. Sure it’s far easier to forget or ignore the nuances, and write about the eight communication rules in business or relationships. How simple it is to say sarcasm ruins a relationship. Frankly, we are smarter than boiling everything down to a few short phrases, a list of do’s and don’ts, and a world of absolutes. Yes, it’s much more time consuming and complicated to delve into the proper use of sarcasm. But, perhaps we should consider why the English language, the human brain and the human condition are far too complex to understand and explain in five bullets or less.

Taken a step further, it’s always easier to say yes or no, than it is to make a general rule and some accompanying exceptions. But it’s the exceptions that make us who we are. Even robots and AI have “what if” statements. As a lawyer, an engineer, a CPA, or an HR professional, the easy path is to advise someone not to do something. It is the valued professional who understands that many times the nuances lead to the best solutions.

 

Last Call.

When WikiHow has an article on How to deal with a sarcastic person, and Psychology Today posts articles like “Three Ways to Stay Cool in the Face of Sarcasm,” I can see there is a problem. But banning or eliminating a tool from the tool box is a little extreme. Perhaps we need to issue sarcasm recognition devices? See: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-science-of-sarcasm-yeah-right-25038/ . Oh no…Artificial Intelligence may be taking over something else!

When researching this article, I uncovered a number of interesting articles you may want to read as well:

  1. Using humor in business can have some advantages. http://snappconner.com/the-good-and-the-bad-of-using-humor-to-communicate-in-business/
  2. How to handle sarcasm in email/text/writing. http://the-toast.net/2015/06/22/a-linguist-explains-how-we-write-sarcasm-on-the-internet/
  3. Can machines spot sarcasm? https://www.technologyreview.com/s/602639/how-vector-space-mathematics-helps-machines-spot-sarcasm/
  4. Benefits of sarcasm, including enhancing creative thinking. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-surprising-benefits-of-sarcasm/

By now you’ve probably surmised that sarcasm is spoken in our home regularly. We are a couple that both appreciate a lot of satire, a little sarcasm, and even a smidge of wicked humor from time to time. I will issue one final warning about the use of sarcasm.

 

Sarcasm is lost on the dog. Take for instance when the family pet decides to follow its human around the house squeaking toys while the human is on the phone. When the human says, “that’s not annoying at all,” the sarcasm falls on deaf ears. And, thankfully, the dog, as man’s best friend, is not at all offended by the comment.

Before issuing no sarcasm zones, maybe we can instead encourage the proper use of sarcasm. Here are a few thoughts before you launch your sarcastic soundbites.

  • No one likes to be belittled or made the brunt of a joke.
  • Use sarcasm sparingly.
  • Don’t be sarcastic with people you don’t know well.
  • When in doubt, just keep your mouth shut.
  • Work is not a playground. Being in a good mood and enjoying work is great. But not everyone shares your opinion of what is funny.

Now I must return to my list of a zillion things to do. “Zillion: a non-specific, very high number. More than a million, but slightly less than, say all the people who hate Brussel sprouts.” The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm by James Napoli.

 

LK Greer

P.S. Did you notice the picture has a misspelling? Just keeping you on your toes!

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    • L. K. Greer

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