Why sarcasm isn’t all that funny


I have always been the type of person who has enjoyed a good laugh or two. Admittedly, I have often used wit and even sarcastic remarks to create humorous banter among friends. Recently, I discovered that I was witnessing more and more sarcasm amongst people that I considered family and friends that began making me re-evaluate the ‘good times’ I was participating it. After a somewhat humbling inner analysis, I realized that my words were often ones that could be taken in a much different context than I originally meant. In fact, I had been downright offensive at times. It lead me to do some research on whether sarcasm is even healthy.

What is sarcasm?

The origin of the word “sarcasm” derives from the Greek word “sarkazein”, which literally means “to tear or strip the flesh off”. Is it surprising, then, that those who are the recipients of sarcasm feel torn or injured? Those who engage in this type of conversation often convey strong feelings and thoughts that reveal an underlying hostility and insecurity. The user spreads speculative happy thoughts or statements in a form of skillful redirection, transferring negativity onto their victim in order to relieve the pain they are feeling.

According to Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D., actions strongly determine thoughts and feelings and use of sarcasm is thinly veiled hostility and a subtle form of bullying; bullies being angry, insecure and cowardly.

The dictionary defines sarcasm as: “The use of irony to mock or convey contempt.” So, why would anyone use it in their conversation?

The science behind the use of sarcasm

David Dunning wrote in his book Self-Insight: Road Blocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself: (Kruger, Gordon, Kuban) that there are three main reasons that humans use sarcasm: insecurity, latent anger and social awkwardness.

  1. Insecurity: Typically when people are confronted by a sarcastic tone, they immediately begin using neurons in their brain that help them interpret the information. For many, the use of sarcasm or teasing is a way of avoiding confrontation because they fear asking for what they want. In the exchange between perpetrator and interpreter, the connection often is not made in a similar manner, leading to feelings of inadequacy and often humiliation.
  2. Latent anger: Sarcasm has a side to it that is passive-aggressive and often asserts dominance and control. “Passive-aggressive” is a psychological term used to describe behavior or a personality trait that involves acting indirectly aggressive rather that directly. Those who have this personality trait regularly exhibit resistance to requests or perceived demands from other individuals often by expressing sullenness, procrastination or being stubborn and immovable. According to Kendra Cherry, there is some evidence to suggest that “passive-aggressive behavior may stem from being raised in an environment where the direct expression of emotions was discouraged or not allowed.” If people feel they cannot express their true emotions, such as anger, in a healthy way, they may find ways to passively channel their anger and/or frustration. Sarcasm is a form of psychological manipulation; a manner in which a person uses various tactics to change the behavior or perception of others through underhanded, deceptive and abusive techniques. It serves to advance the interests of the manipulator, generally at the victim’s expense and is considered abusive, devious and exploitative. Those who utilize these behaviors are often unaware that their actions and words cause distress in others and they generally do not connect those behaviors with hostility or resentment; often due to the perpetrator being non-assertive and inefficient. Rather than learn how to cope early in life, those who engage in these behaviors learn that taking responsibility for their own actions is uncomfortable and they tend to manipulate and blame others for their own inadequacies.
  3. Social awkwardness: Unlike Agoraphobics, those who use sarcasm often to do not see these behaviors as disturbing and are a way for the user to hide fears. Some of those fears may include a fear of social interaction, but can also involve the following: Fear of intimacy due to lack of trust, perceived martyrdom or weakness, blaming of others for personal failures (real or perceived), creation of excuses for being under-productive, denial of actual events, convenient forgetfulness, withdrawal from others (“cold shoulder”) in order to avoid interpersonal connections or confrontation, ambiguous speech an actions, stirring up trouble in others, punishing others’ inefficiencies, sulking when one does not get their way, fear of dependence on others, use of the “silent treatment”, refusal to enter competition that they can not guarantee they will be able to be seen as the victor, inability to follow through on tasks and promises and use of obstructionism as a means to delay or prevent change or life processes. Many times, the user of sarcasm are not as proficient at reading those around them as they believe they are. Uncomfortable with general conversation, they often employ sarcasm in order to sound playful, affectionate and caring. Their own awkwardness often leads to “teasing” that has the opposite effect they desire — setting up a situation in which they are viewed as annoying or malicious and creating a cyclical pattern of inadequacy, resentment, anger and a return to inadequacy.

How sarcasm can be a sign of a personality disorder

A controversial topic among mental health providers, the use of repeated sarcasm is often a result of Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder and a diagnosis in the DSM-IV of Personality Disorder NOS (not otherwise specified).

Signs/Symptoms:

A pervasive pattern of negative attitudes and passive resistance to demands that may or may not include the following behaviors in the affected person:

  • Sullen and argumentative.
  • Alternates between being contrary and hostile.
  • Passively resists completion of routine work and social tasks.
  • Complaints about being “misunderstood” and “unappreciated” by other people.
  • Irrationally scorns and critiques authority.
  • Expresses envy and resentment toward those perceived as “more fortunate.”
  • Often speaks of persistent and exaggerated accounts of personal misfortune.

The difference between sarcasm and wit

Human interaction is an important part of emotional growth and helps us build rapport with different circles we encounter in society. While we may not feel comfortable expressing emotions with everyone, we tend to feel comfortable joking with our friends in order to have fun. It is a way to enjoy mutual trust. Wit is defined as: the keen perception and cleverly apt expression of those connections between ideas that awaken amusement and pleasure; speech or writing showing such perception and expression; a person having or noted for such perception and expression; understanding, intelligence, or sagacity; astuteness.

Wit allows us to express and perceive the clever and amusing. While it is often used to illustrate absurd ideas, including human nature and conduct, it is done so in a kindly manner. Wit is an intellectual manifestation of cleverness and a quickness in discovering analogies between things that may be similar or different, expressing them with observation.

There is a different between having fun and making fun. Wit and humor become sarcasm when the intent is no longer an honest expression of fun and openness but a manner to create a situation that leads to pain and hurtful judgment.

Combating sarcasm and returning to good humor

Gossip is often one of the quickest way for a person to slip from good humor into sarcasm because it becomes harsh and critical. Refraining from speaking ill of others is not often easy, but can be accomplished when we are aware of its dangers.

When you find yourself in a situation where fun has turned sarcastic, the most effective way to combat it is to disengage from the conversation. It involves a conscious decision and choice to not become involved in the first place or to remove oneself from the situation if you recognize the conversation has turned.

It isn’t rude to point out that the expressions of others have taken a turn to ugliness. In fact, those who are prone to the use of sarcasm often do not realize they have changed their emotional expression(s). In a non-judgmental manner, it is effective to use only factual statements. For example: “It appears to me that you may be angry.” Don’t be discouraged if you are told that the person you are addressing refutes this and don’t engage in a decline to further negativity. Trust your feelings and realize that there are times that you may simply need to remove yourself from the conversation or experience in order to maintain your own emotions.

Verbal acceptance of the denial does not mean you have let the person using sarcasm to “win”. This is not a competition and turning it into one will simply lead to a downward spiral into more negativity. Acknowledge the denial in a non-assaultive manner but send the message that you do not wish to engage any longer. You have as much right to your emotions and expressions as they do. Don’t feel like you have to become an apologist. If you have done wrong, admit it, but you do not have to accept negative statements and/or behaviors as “okay” — even if you love that person dearly. In fact, an admission of love can help the person caught in the rut of sarcasm can encourage them to do a self-assessment.

My personal inventory

After taking a humble assessment of myself and researching my interactions with others, I realized there were people I should approach with a sincere apology. Even if I had not meant to offend, it was my responsibility to take ownership of any pain I had caused a friend or fellow human being. Allowing them to accept the apology or reject it was a lesson in understanding that some pain takes time to heal and may never be repaired to my satisfaction.

I am not perfect. In fact, I am far from it. I realize that I need to exercise caution when “joking around”. I would rather intellectually stimulate others with wit and humor. I do not desire to cause more pain in a world that is already filled with hardship.

This is just my life. Every person has to take their own personal inventory. I encourage people to do this throughout their lives. We can only know our true selves when we are willing to be honest and open.

To those who suffer with lives filled with sarcasm, I wish only the best. Your past does not have to determine your future. Change often begins with recognition.

Be kind to each other and kind to yourself. Life is too short to be burdened with negativity and just long enough to find happiness.