Corrosive Communication

Use your words wisely.

Posted Jun 20, 2015

J Krueger
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Sarcasm: the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded. ~ Dostoyevsky

Sarcasm rarely leads to any good. Using a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary, Wikipedia describes sarcasm as “a sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark; a bitter gibe or taunt.” The word sarcasm itself conveys horror, as it is derived from the Greek for the tearing of flesh, as when one bites one’s lip in rage. Most of the psychological research on sarcasm has focused on the comprehension of sarcastic remarks. Comprehension – and presumably the generation – of sarcasm is linked to intelligence. It takes smarts to transform “the polarity of an apparently positive or negative utterance into its opposite” (González-Ibáñez, Muresan, & Wacholder, 2011. p. 19). Linguists have studied how pitch and voice inflection can render an utterance sarcastic (see this post for examples).

There is little work on the social functions and effects of sarcasm, although it is clear that sarcasm falls on the spectrum of aggression. But who would aggress in such a way? It seems to me that differences in personal power matter here. A dominant person need not resort to sarcasm because they have other, more direct, ways at their disposal to express themselves and get what they want. Powerful, dominant individuals have little reason to fear retaliation from weaker ones. They may still choose sarcasm to pointedly humiliate or embarrass another, but they don’t have to. Sarcasm seems to be the refuge of less dominant, less powerful individuals. Passive aggression, and hence sarcasm, retains a sheen of deniability (oh, I really did not mean to offend; it’s all in your head, your perception). Socially weak individuals may lash out in frustration and use sarcasm because it stops short of outright confrontation while giving vent to their discontent. When we consider both intelligence and social power and assume they are not perfectly correlated, we may expect sarcasm from smart but weak individuals directed at smart and powerful ones. The smart and powerful can use sarcasm, but don’t need to. The dull, be they powerful or weak, can’t.

In direct communication, sarcasm is corrosive because it is likely to provoke resentment and perhaps reprisal. The use of sarcasm may not be worth it in this context. However, there’s also third-party communication. Smart, non-dominant individuals can use sarcasm rhetorically and skillfully when voicing grievances about the powerful to fellow travellers of little power. Here, sarcasm can have its cathartic effect and it may help building coalitions. The highest form of this usage of sarcasm is comedy. You can blast your boss, the president, or the tea party with clever sarcasm and feel better, for a minute or so.

The latest: In a new paper published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Huang, Gino, & Galinsky (2015) show that while sarcasm tends to generate and increase interpersonal conflict, it also promotes abstract thinking and, as a consequence, creativity. Among people who trust one another, trust does not inspire conflict, and still stirs creativity.

Defensiveness, charge of

A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar. ~ Mark Twain

If sarcasm is an attack on a person’s dignity, so are certain direct challenges. Ask yourself whether you have ever been called defensive, how that made you feel, and how you responded. It seems to me that there is no proper response to the charge of defensiveness, which reveals its underlying bad faith. If you deny being defensive, your accuser is free to count your denial as further evidence for the truth of the charge. If you admit to being defensive, you submit to the attack, paradoxically though in non-defensive fashion, which undercuts the truth of the charge.

Epimenides of Knossos is credited with discovering the liar paradox. If he, the Cretan, tells us that all Cretans are liars, what are we to make of that? If a sign says “This statement is not true,” how can we not be puzzled? The defensiveness charge brings forth this kind of self-reflexive instability. If you deny being defensive, you are; if you admit it, you are not. Either way, you are barred from offering a true reply. You are forced into telling a falsity. The defensiveness charge is little else but a veiled accusation that “You are a liar.” Is whatever you say in response a falsity (as suggested in the previous sentence), or is it neither true nor false? The latter interpretation is the one that refers to the paradox’s deepest lesson. There is perhaps a third state, beyond truth and falsity: a paradoxical suspension or indeterminacy. This possibility is intellectually intriguing, but it does not make for healthy social communication. Better to stay away from it or find your catharsis in comedy.

As in the case of sarcasm, we may ask who levels the charge of defensiveness (aside from psychologists harassing the couch-ridden). Again, I think that social power plays a role. The charge of defensiveness tends to come up, I think, after an emotional conflict has already escalated. It is typically not the first line of attack. When there is a power differential, escalation is rare because the more powerful quickly subdue the less powerful. When, however, power is matched between the disputants, the regular arsenal gets exhausted, and bad-faith methods take over. It is at this time that no real solution is expected any longer; the only remaining objective is to unsettle the opponent and inflict emotional pain. The charge of defensiveness, illogical as it is, suits the purpose.

Guilt, induction of

Guilt has very quick ears to an accusation. ~ Henry Fielding

Successful guilt induction requires two players: an agent and a sucker. The agent conveys to the sucker that she should feel guilty, and she does. Lifelong acculturation makes this possible, and perhaps there is an evolutionary preparedness to be able to feel guilty. Defenders of guilt note that guilt is a moral emotion, which will help us mend our social ways. Detractors (among whom I count myself) note that the pain of guilt is rarely worth the uncertain benefits of impoved behavior, especially since there are other ways to mold people. 

If you must appeal to a person's conscience by way of guilt induction, I recommend being concrete. Refer to the behavior, not the person's character. This by itself, should mitigate destructive guilt and resentment. The most corrosive form of guilt induction does not refer to any behavior at all. This is Qaphqa's nightmare: "You are guilty and you know it, and you will be punished. Before the punishment arrives, however, you yourself figure out what you are guilty of." A popular play on this toxic theme is observed among individuals in long-standing relationships. Chris says to Pat: "We'll need to talk. There is something that has been bothering me. We need to clear the air." Etc. Pat has plenty of autobiographical and relationshippal memory, which he can now scan for clues. What is Chris up to? Tone of voice, context, and history suggest that Chris is not about to apologize but ot bring forward a grievance, large or small. Chris knows that Pat will infer this, and that Pat will spend precious energy trying to predict Chris's next move. It is not fair, but corrosive. Pat should shrug it off, but once patterns of interdependent communication are establish, this is easier said than done.

President Obama, in his otherwise inspirational and masterly eulogy speech in Charleston, SC, tapped into the same well. Speaking in a church, he deployed the christian trope "We are all sinners, and we don't deserve god's grace." But then god gives grace anyway. In this otherwise superbly humane speech, the president diminished humanity in an all-too-christian way. We are sinners, but the nature of our sin is not revealed. We must expect punishment, while figuring out ourselves what the punishment is for. To be fair to the president, he went beyond the standard rhetoric and named the concrete transgressions of racism, discrimination, and indifference to injustice and suffering. He used the christian trope of built-in guilt to make a political point. Hence, taken as a whole, I do not regard his speech as corrosive, but as ingenious.

González-Ibáñez, R., Muresan, S., & Wacholder, N. (2011). Identifying sarcasm in twitter: a closer look. Proceedings of the 49th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics: short papers, pp. 581–586. Portland, Oregon.

Huang, L., Gino, F., & Galinsky, A. D. (2015). The highest form of intelligence: Sarcasm increases creativity for both expressers and recipients. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Published online first.