Have you ever met that one person that just had to say a sarcastic comment about everything? Yea, I thought so. Sarcasm is one of those types of humor you either like or you don’t. As a kid, I hated sarcasm. My dad used it sparingly and always correctly, but I still hated it. Why can’t we just be straight forward with everything we say? I would ask. However, living in the irony saturated 21st century that we do, I adapted. Sarcasm was kinda fun… why not use it?
If you asked the people in my life if I use sarcasm much, you would get very different answers. Most people would say I use it sparingly, others might say I drown every conversation with it. Why is this? What makes me want to use it more with certain people? What about in certain situations? When is it appropriate? Is sarcasm ever appropriate?
Sarcasm as a term comes from the Greek word σαρκασμός (sarkasmós) which is taken from σαρκάζειν (sarkázein) meaning “to tear flesh, bite the lip in rage, sneer.” Webster’s Dictionary defines it as, “a sharp utterance designed to cut or give pain.” Oscar Wilde wrote, “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but highest form of intelligence.” Intelligence or not, communication experts (and common sense) typically advise to stay away from this particular form of expression. If the definition doesn’t give it away, sarcasm is almost always laced with criticism. In one laboratory study, participants read scenarios in which, for instance, (1) one person did something that could be viewed negatively, such as smoking, and (2) a second person commented on the behavior to the first person, either literally (“I see you don’t have a healthy concern for your lungs”) or sarcastically (“I see you have a healthy concern for your lungs”). Participants rated sarcasm to be more condemning than literal statements.
Tell it to someone who cares.
Well, aren’t you special.
Keep rolling your eyes. Maybe you’ll find a brain back there.
I majored in liberal arts. Will that be for here or to go?
Not the brightest crayon in the box now, are we?
I don’t mean to use sarcasm as much as I do. And when I do, very rarely is it because I’m trying to be funny and get attention. Sarcasm is a defense mechanism. When I use it, it is more often than not because the other person has caught me off guard and I try to make up for it. Whether it’s a professor or a romantic interest, I’m either trying to impress or protect. If nothing serious is ever said, can any serious hurt happen?
On the flipside of this gloomy soapbox I’ve gotten on, sarcasm is an intricate part of the English language and can actually be helpful. Scientists who have monitored the electrical activity of the brains of test subjects exposed to sarcastic statements have found that brains have to work harder to understand sarcasm. That extra work makes our brains sharper. In a recent study, College students in Israel listened to complaints to a cellphone company’s customer service line. The students were better able to solve problems creatively when the complaints were sarcastic as opposed to just plain angry. Sarcasm “appears to stimulate complex thinking and to attenuate the otherwise negative effects of anger,” according to the study authors. More interestingly, people who engage in a sarcastic conversation fare better on creativity tasks. The processes involved in initiating and delivering a sarcastic comment improves the creativity and cognitive functioning of both the commenter and the recipient.
So… sarcasm inflicts pain 90% of the time and is laced with criticism, but at the same time it can help solve problems quicker and points to a higher functioning mind – a.k.a. intelligence. What?
The bottom line is: trust. Sarcasm is fun and can spice up any conversation, but if you use it with someone you trust it will be less conflict provoking and if something is taken the wrong way or out of context – you can talk through it.
Given the negative effects of sarcasm, keep your salty comments limited to conversations with those you know well.