3 Ways to Stay Cool in the Face of Sarcasm

Sarcasm got you down? Here are three tips to help you deal.

Posted Sep 08, 2016 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader

Flickr/Mic445
Source: Flickr/Mic445

Sarcasm and jazz have something surprising in common: You know them when you hear them. Sarcasm is mostly understood through tone of voice, which is used to portray the opposite of the literal words. For example, when someone says, “Well, that’s exactly what I need right now,” their tone can tell you it’s not what they need at all.

On the flip side, sarcasm can also be complimentary: “You majored in applied math? Slacker.” Or it can be self-deprecating: “What are you talking about? My ‘99 Geo Prizm gets all the ladies.” Sarcasm can even be used to channel Beyonce: “I woke up like this.”

But most frequently, sarcasm highlights an irritation or is, quite simply, mean.

But for all the social mayhem they cause, sarcastic people actually employ some pretty advanced social cognition. Now, this does not mean sarcastic people are more intelligent, despite what some interweb articles might want you to believe. It simply means that the ability to use and comprehend sarcasm requires a skill called Theory of Mind, which helps you detect the mental states of others, including true feelings, thoughts, and intentions.

So even though a sarcastic individual says the opposite of what is meant, he or she intends that the listener will detect the true meaning. If you don’t catch the meaning, you can’t respond appropriately. As a result, those with deficits in Theory of Mind, like individuals with schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, or autism, have a hard time understanding or using sarcasm.

Why does sarcasm require higher order social cognition? Simply put, it’s because the tone and content oppose each other. A sincere comment in a positive tone—“That is so awesome!”—or a critical comment in a negative tone—“That is so cliche"—are congruent. A sarcastic comment, however, is often a positive message with a negative tone, which is more complicated for the brain to process.

What’s the Purpose of Sarcasm?

Fundamentally, sarcasm is a cover. It’s used to cover anger, envy, or inadequacy that, without the anti-sugarcoating of sarcasm, feels too forthright.

The truth is that hiding strong emotions with sarcasm can be useful.  A 2011 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology asked participants to listen to one of three versions of a customer complaining to his cell phone company about problems with reception and customer service. The three messages were equal in subject matter and length, but the presentation was either angry (“You make deliveries only between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m.! This is an outrage!"), sarcastic (You make deliveries only between 9 am and 12 p.m.! Well, that’s just perfect for working people"), or neutral (“You make deliveries only between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. I am at work during those hours.").

After listening to one of the messages, participants were asked to solve either a set of analytical problems or a set of creative problems. The analytic problems were simple, but required attention to detail, while the creative problems required participants to think outside the box and connect three seemingly unrelated words, for example: envy, golf, beans. (Curious? Scroll to the end for the answer.)

What were the results and what do they show about sarcasm? Those who listened to the angry message saw their creative problem-solving abilities hindered, but they kicked butt on the analytic task. In other words, they worked harder, but not smarter. Naked anger squelched any kind of creativity. By contrast, those who listened to the sarcastic message actually enhanced their creative problem-solving.  

Why? The researchers suggested that results were due to the fact that anger is threatening; thus, it automatically puts people on the defensive, which causes them to narrow their problem-solving to just the facts, ma’am, and become more detail-oriented and rigid.

By contrast, sarcasm, with its humor and figurative language, is less threatening. Plus, it requires, according to the researchers, “more cognitive effort and complex thinking than understanding direct anger.”

So next time you call customer service, your best bet is to be nice, and I never thought I’d recommend this, but if you can’t say something nice, at least say something sarcastic.

OK, that’s enough nerdiness about sarcasm. Now, what to do when faced with it?

Response #1: Be literal in your answer.  Sarcasm is supposed to be a joke—a joke that covers contempt or jealousy, but a joke nonetheless. And what’s worse for the joker than having the joke fall flat?  

So when faced with, “That new boyfriend of yours is a real winner,” or “Mmmm, love this home cooking!” respond to the content, not the tone. Reply with the opposite of sarcasm: sincerity. “Great, I’m so glad you like him—let’s all get together,” or “Awesome, how about seconds?” When they’re forced to explain, “Well, actually, that’s not what I meant,” it gets awkward, but you’ve inoculated yourself against further attacks.

Response #2: Try to ignore sarcasm (with a dose of compassion). This works best for strangers who yell “Nice driving!” or the equivalent. Folks willing to put time and energy into putting down total strangers are probably pretty miserable and want you to feel as lousy as they do—feel some compassion for them and move on.

Response #3: Free advice can be useful. Sarcasm comes in different flavors. Some folks are sarcastic to make fun of an absurd world. They’re laughing with you, or even at themselves. That’s fine—leave them be.

But those who are laughing at you often honestly think they’re being funny. They don’t realize they leave a trail of hurt feelings (not to mention higher odds of divorce and greater chances of getting fired) in their wake.

If you care about someone with a habitually hostile wit, consider a gentle intervention: “You have such a wickedly sharp sense of humor. I know you don’t mean to be hurtful, but your sarcasm sometimes comes across as bitter and hostile, which I’m guessing is not your intention.”

If you’ve gotten this far without saying “Fascinating! Tell me more,” then when I say “Thanks for listening,” know that it’s sincere.

*The answer?  Envy, golf, and beans have GREEN in common.

A version of this piece also appeared on Quick and Dirty Tips.

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Disclaimer: All content is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute for mental health care from a licensed professional.