It’s funny how sarcasm is associated with humor. “To tear flesh like a dog,” is not a jolly image, but the word nonetheless derives from the Greek sarkazein, meaning just that. It evolved to mean “to bite into one’s lips in rage,” and “to speak bitterly, sneer” (Online Etymology, 2020). Webster’s modern definition is: "Satirical wit…depending on caustic and often ironic language that is usually directed towards an individual." From Oxford: "The use of irony to mock or convey contempt." Essentially, sarcasm is often hostility disguised as humor. Synonyms include derision, mockery, and ridicule, all less-than-humorous things to be receiving.
Clearly, there’s more than meets the eye. Indeed, a laugh from clever and pointed irony can be funny. Readers familiar with comedian Bill Burr can attest to this. And we’re all guilty of a little sarcastic quip. (Husband: “Did you turn the stereo on?” Wife: “No, it grew arms and turned the dial.”) It's also understandable how teens, for various reasons, are often contemptuous, and have a sarcastic phase. But what about people who rely on abrasive sarcasm as an interactive style? A little sarcastic wit is like a spicy seasoning. A pinch of it can make food enjoyable, but a serving of the spice itself hurts.
The sarcastic operation
Have you noticed that gratingly sarcastic people make fun of you if you relay you’re bothered by their comments? “You’re a baby!” “Calm down-I’m just messing with you,” they say, and you’re left to marvel at this chronic need for them to “mess” with you. It’s as if they feel superior in their casting you as a weakling for being unable to take their sarcasm.
Such a sarcastic demeanor may be confusing. It's as if a strange screen of attitude exists between the sarcastic person and their target. Targets may not be sure if the sarcastic one is sending a message or if they are simply joking.
The truth is, chronically-sarcastic people frequently rely on this obfuscation to express emotions and communicate. These folks also often harbor passive-aggressive characteristics and simply don’t have the ability to be real about emotions, or fear confrontation were they to speak their mind. They therefore employ sarcasm, a sort of cloak-and-dagger approach to communication. It allows them to expel brewing contempt in a manner that feels safe. It is also serves as a repellant along with the smug demeanor many sarcastic people adopt. Oftentimes sarcastic, passive-aggressive souls don't want people getting close due to an inability to handle emotional intimacy. Most people can only handle so much of them, even if they are truly a good person, because of their sarcasm. Said person gets their cake and eats it too.
But what about this business of chronic derision towards people whom the sarcastic person has seemingly never had issues with? Theodore Millon, Ph.D., the late personality disorder giant, also noted (1996) another point is that the chronically-sarcastic/cynical are also pessimistic and have low self-esteem, naturally leading to jealousy of others and therefore criticism and contempt. This also explains the tendency for them to capitalize on others’ “not being able to take it,” providing them a chance to feel superior in that you can’t handle them.
First, cool your jets by considering it's not personal: chances are they're globally sarcastic. Second, realize that deep emotional turmoil may be the driving force. For years, I struggled to manage a friend’s sarcasm. Trying to discuss how it affected me was met with derision or shutting down. Over time, I realized her protective needs ran so deep it was pointless to try and rationalize with her. Unfortunately, it was largely sarcasm that allowed her to feel empowered to socialize at all, as it gave her the armor she needed to put herself out there.
However, I wasn't her therapist and if I was going to be her friend, I needed to accept her as she was. As treatment providers, however, if someone's sarcasm is impeding relationships, it’s our duty to take this on. Knowing the fragility lurking below of sarcasm aficionados, it’s a bad move to put them in their place and point out this is their problem. This will only bring defensiveness. Instead, employ gentle, here-and-now examples with "I feel" statements, like with my patient, Wyatt (name disguised):
Wyatt’s sarcastic demeanor permeated the room as he complained about people misunderstanding him.
“What’s so hard about understanding me? I speak English, people!” he quipped. Wyatt was referred by his new supervisor when colleagues felt that, while he’s good at his new job and a decent guy, he’s hard to read and therefore hard to have on the team. They explained, “We don’t know if he’s joking or serious and he gets irritated if we ask."
I asked Wyatt to fill me in on that complaint. “Ohhh, I love my job,” said Wyatt, “Why would I want to mess with people?”
Seizing the moment as an example I swooped in. "Wyatt, you’re pretty new on this team, and you’re new to me, too. I think I can help bring some perspective and get you on the right track. Would you be interested in my thoughts?
“I’m curious now!” he replied.
“Just bear with me here. That last statement, about loving your job, do you actually enjoy it?”
“Well, yeah, I’ve been trying to get in that department for two years!”
“Cool” I said. “I’d like you to just listen to me parrot back to you what you said and tell me how it comes across.”
After mirroring Wyatt’s statement, he replied, “It sounds like you’re joking.”
“Maybe to you it does,” I continued, “because it’s your sense of humor. I feel I got a sense of what your co-workers struggle with, though. I honestly needed clarification of a simple statement on job satisfaction because of the tone. Is it possible they’re not trying to be difficult with you, but are simply trying to understand you, and a sarcastic tendency is getting in the way?"
Wyatt acknowledged that if his job was precious to him, he’d have to learn to curb his sarcasm there. Along the way, we tackled what function sarcasm served and refined how he communicates globally.
Because sarcasm tends to create a standoffish feel, some therapists may not tackle it for fear of becoming a target. Clearly, it can be a rich feeding ground for therapy if some simple steps are followed.
Merriam-Webster (n.d.). Sarcasm. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sarcasm
Millon, T. (1996). Disorders of personality. DSM-IV and beyond. Wiley
Online Etymology Dictionary (n.d.). Sarcasm. In Etymonline. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from https://www.etymonline.com/word/sarcasm
Oxford (n.d.). Sarcasm. In Oxfordify.com dictionary. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from https://www.oxfordify.com/meaning/sarcasm