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Field Guide: Sarcastic Masters

They're smart, they're funny, and they know it. But is cracking jokes that put other people down truly wise?

If there's such a thing as a congenital smart aleck, Rachel Mosteller is it. The 27-year-old Houston journalist has been ready with a well-timed barb since her elementary-school years. "I made my first quip when I was about 10. My parents were getting divorced right around my birthday, and I said, 'Well, isn't that a great present,'" she recalls. "That made my mom pretty mad."

Mosteller has continued to hone her sensibility ever since. "I tend to use it when I think people are taking themselves too seriously," she says.

Certified wisecrackers may see their snarky remarks as clever diversions, but because the distinction between a joke and an insult can be nebulous, they can easily damage relationships and careers with their one-liners. Frustrated by her company's practice of feting model employees with Hallmark-style gifts, Mosteller posted a send-up of the policy on her blog, The Sarcastic Journalist, in 2005. "You go and do something spectacular (most likely, you're doing your JOB) and someone says, 'Why golly, that was spectacular.' Then they bring you chocolate and some balloons," she wrote. Though she never disclosed her real name or the company's, higher-ups got wind of the post and she was promptly fired.

So why do wisecrackers keep their bons mots coming at the risk of alienating others? Though they may not be aware of it, sarcasm is their means of indirectly expressing aggression toward others and insecurity about themselves. Wrapping their thoughts in a joke shields them from the vulnerability that comes with directly putting one's opinions out there. "Sarcastic people protect themselves by only letting the world see a superficial part of who they are," says Steven Stosny, a Washington, D.C.-based therapist and anger specialist. "They're very into impression management."

Because humor and hostility often come mixed together, it can be difficult to pinpoint a wisecracker's primary intent. "Sometimes sarcasm is humor—purely a Don Rickles kind of joking—and sometimes it's just innocently insensitive," Stosny says. "But other times, it's devaluing." Everyone benefits from a wisecracker's comic relief, but if you are the target of regular swipes, it's best to assertively call the joker out. His hilariousness doesn't give him the right to belittle you.

Genesis of the Jibe

"Just blurting out an insult is pedestrian at best," says Vacheh Joakim, an IT specialist in Los Angeles who prides himself on his sardonic wit. "But a sarcastic jab that can masquerade as a compliment is much more enjoyable, and it also gives the person being sarcastic a sense of superiority." Though Stosny and others theorize that such verbal jujitsu is rooted in insecurity, wisecrackers themselves, predictably enough, tend to admit feelings of inadequacy only indirectly. Joakim, for example, acknowledges the possibility of using sarcasm to compensate for shortcomings, but sidesteps a personal revelation: "Sarcasm doesn't help satisfy a Napoleon complex, but it does give you a little ego boost."

Albert Katz, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Western Ontario, has recently looked at the wisecrackers' focus on one-upsmanship from a biological perspective, showing that people whose brains are best equipped to understand sarcasm tend to have aggressive personalities. Subjects who scored high on aggression tests showed different patterns of brain activity in response to sarcasm than those who did not. The differences suggest that the aggressive subjects were processing nonliteral meaning more quickly. "Sarcasm is definitely a dominance thing—it's related to being top dog," Katz says, both for initiators of sarcastic banter and those who catch on and offer a retort.

A knack for sarcasm isn't necessarily linked to intelligence, says Simone Shamay-Tsoory, a neurologist at the University of Haifa in Israel. Some highly intelligent people who have autism or Asperger's syndrome, for example, may fail to understand jokes and sarcasm. But her research has shown that people who are particularly good at detecting sarcasm also tend to be better at identifying emotional facial expressions. They seem to understand social situations better overall, she says.

Such superior social intelligence may be behind Joakim's conclusion that those who can hang with sarcasm are always the most interesting conversation partners at a party.

Sarcasm's Slippery Slope

Everyone wants a witty partner, but sarcasm can sabotage relationships. Psychologist John Gottman has found that if partners display contempt toward each other—which commonly includes making sarcastic remarks—their odds of divorce rise dramatically. "People who use sarcasm don't see themselves as being hurtful, they see themselves as being funny," Katz says. "But recipients tend to interpret their remarks as hurtful."

"People are constantly getting mad at me," Mosteller says. "One time, this other mother was talking about how her kid's illness was being transmitted to the rest of the family. I said, 'Well, that's why I refuse to give my kids any kind of physical affection when they're sick. I just lock them in a room.' She thought I was serious and gave me this look. I thought, 'There goes a potential playdate.'"

Still, with a little discretion, a sarcastic bent can be channeled in positive directions—standard-bearers include Stephen Colbert and the creators of The Simpsons. Over the past two years, Mosteller has bounced back from her firing and carved out a freelance niche for her writing. Though she has trouble finding friends who appreciate her facetious approach to life, her family is more attuned to her wavelength than they used to be. "When I told them I was doing this article, one of them deadpanned, 'Great. Make us proud.'"

When to Take The Edge Off

Yes, you're sharp. But are you cutting too deep? Here's how to ensure people don't take what you say the wrong way.

  • Know your audience.

    People have as wide a range of tolerance for sarcasm as they do for liquor. "If the person at the receiving end of sarcasm knows it's meant as a joke, the reaction may be more positive," Joakim says. "But I try not to be sarcastic with total strangers. That's usually not pretty."

  • Scan before you send.

    It's best to avoid snarkiness in e-mails and text messages. Sarcasm is highly dependent on tone, while people tend to take typed notes more literally. As silly as those smiley-face emoticons are, use one if there is any possibility that your message could be misinterpreted.

  • Examine your motivations.

    Some people resort to over-the-top sarcasm in an attempt to shore up their own self-image. Consider whether you yourself harbor feelings of inadequacy. Once you feel comfortable with who you are, you won't need to hide behind a veil of sarcasm.

  • Err on the side of caution.

    If you're unsure how the target of your statement will respond, it's best not to unleash sarcasm at all, as Mosteller has learned. "If I'm around my husband's boss, I hold my tongue," she says. "I know that once I open my mouth, things are just going to keep coming."