That’s gotta be sarcasm…or is it?

sarcasmGrowing up north of Boston the youngest of five kids, sarcasm mattered in my world. Bostonians are known for their quick wit and clever, but cutting sarcasm, and my siblings and I were no exception. At family gatherings I frequently heard, “Can’t you take a joke?” or “I was only kidding!” Being the baby of the lot, my sarcasm IQ fell short of my siblings, but it didn’t take me long to get it to cutting edge status.  

As I spread my wings and began working with all different kinds of people from all different backgrounds, I came to realize that sarcasm doesn’t matter everywhere. In fact the majority of people don’t have a context for sarcasm as “normal” family banter as I did. My sarcastic remarks fell flat.

  My first awareness of how sarcasm not only doesn’t matter, but also actually creates more of a chasm than a connection, was when I was Chief Operating Officer at the National Indian Youth Leadership Project (NIYLP) in New Mexico. This was my first full-time job based outside of the Boston area. The first few times I injected my sarcastic sense of humor into a challenging meeting, or heated debate, or teachable moment, I noticed people shutting down. Luckily for me my colleague Bart Crawford who I’d known for the 11 years prior to transitioning to NIYLP was well aware of my biting humor. He explained to me, gently and using stories of his own experience learning how not to take my humor personally, that sarcasm is confusing and hurtful. He showed me examples of how the majority of people don’t take it well, don’t find it funny and walk away not asking clarifying questions, but instead just walk away – feeling yucky.  

After I moved from Massachusetts to California was when I really began to see the disparity between those for whom sarcasm is a communication tool and those who have no context for the use of sarcasm. It seems it has just never dawned on Californians to be sarcastic. As I lobbed out some of my best, quickest and most witty comments, I would again see that look of confusion or worse, the quizzical “What kind of *ss are you?” expression.  

I began to read a lot about the psychology of sarcasm and what the use really says about the user. The question that spoke to me was “Why when in the early stages of connection building would someone bring confusion and chaos forward by saying the exact opposite of what they mean?” Why indeed?  

What I discovered is that while sarcasm can be a more convenient (and less scary) way for the speaker to communicate an idea or thought, a sarcastic statement takes significantly more brainpower for a listener to process. Additionally because sarcastic remarks have multiple underlying messages, the speaker can’t possibly know how the listener will interpret the remark. Their original message can be completely lost in translation -literally.  

Sarcasm can make for more lively and humorous dialog (especially for the speaker) but when the goal is efficient, effective connection that increases problem solving, innovation and teamwork, is sarcasm worth it?  

Curious how you can begin to avoid having sarcasm get in your way of creating connection and getting the outcomes you desire? Here are the questions I ask myself whenever I feel the urge to inject sarcasm:  

  • Does it need to be said?
  • Does it need to be said by me?
  • Does it need to be said by me now?

  Sarcastic banter still comes easily to me but I go through these questions and 99% of the time, the answer to “Does it need to be said?” is “no”. But sometimes, despite all my intentionality, sarcasm still spills out as easily as my Boston accent.