Sarcasm is an odd issue to tackle. The reason is that it is highly contextual, often subtle, and totally ubiquitous. My title says “Sarcasm is contempt” but that is 100% dependent on the context in which it is being leveled. Here is an example:
Q: My partner is very sarcastic with me. Whenever I make a mistake or don’t do something the way he thinks it should be done, I am on the receiving end of his Jon Stewart-like wit. While I love him and think he is very intelligent, it really stings sometimes. Why do I feel this way when he is just trying to be funny?
Sarcasm Is Contempt–Sometimes
Sarcasm is an interesting form of communication. It is saying words when you intend the opposite meaning. It is highly contextual, and must be considered in each situation and between whom the communication is occurring.
Here are a few of the different contexts we will consider:
- Sarcasm with people you are close to
- Sarcasm with strangers, or “mild acquaintances”
- Sarcasm in emails, particularly in the workplace
- Sarcasm online in social media
- Sarcasm with your significant other
Most of the time, when you are in a close group of friends, sarcasm is pleasurable and stimulating, even increasing our creativity according to research reported in Scientific American. Your peeps “get you” so no harm, no foul. The brain has a little more processing to do to understand sarcasm when it is delivered, and because the brain must think creatively to understand or convey a sarcastic comment, sarcasm may lead to clearer and more creative thinking. We humans are story tellers, and in doing so, our brains must connect many stored references and images, and we prefer images. Sarcasm is an excellent vehicle for conjuring up images in the brain. Think “when pigs fly” as someone expresses the impossibility of a task to you.
Sarcasm with strangers and those you do not know well is another story. It is more likely to lead to misunderstandings and conflict if it is not understood, or if those in the conversation are not privy to the context you are referencing. For example, if you make a sarcastic reference to a political candidate in the current climate, you may easily offend someone. Let’s face it, current terms of office will end, but your relationship may need to continue out of necessity.
The same applies at work when you are writing emails. Did you know that in one experiment conducted with 30 pairs of university students, those who received sarcastic statements via e-mail only “got” the sarcasm 56 percent of the time? That is hardly better than chance. So if you don’t want to inadvertently alienate your supervisor or coworker, it might be best to skip the sarcasm in your project updates.
Ahhhh, sarcasm in social media. How we love to bash others with our supreme wit when there are no consequences. It’s the mob mentality, or like patrons at the bar three drinks deep, who are feeling extraordinarily witty. Have you ever browsed through a political post on Facebook? The vast majority of the time, the comment section will degenerate into juvenile word battles. Who can be the cleverest wordsmith in the land?
Is Sarcasm Contempt With Your Partner?
And now to answer this question about sarcasm with your significant other. When it is designed to belittle or criticize, and it is frequent, sarcasm will hurt, and needs to be toned down. If both parties understand it is delivered in affectionate jest, then have fun with it. This is a form of flirting, which is fun and healthy in loving relationships. Otherwise it becomes an issue of setting appropriate boundaries and letting your lover know when they have gone too far, too often.
A final caution, have fun with sarcasm, but be mindful around the Thanksgiving table. Don’t be a turkey. Sometimes we don’t see our relatives very often, and they might not receive sarcasm the way you intend. Enjoy the holiday and your turkey coma!
Page Rutledge, LCSW, MSW, MPH is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker practicing in Wilmington, NC. She specializes in anxiety management and couples counseling where one partner is highly anxious. Visit her contact page and awesome blog at www.pagerutledge.com