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Straight Talking Sarcasm

Why sarcasm isn't all that funny

Yesterday was not a typical Father's Day.

My dad has never been a typical father, and we have never shared a typical father-daughter relationship.

Growing up, I didn't think he understood me at all. He would lecture me in Korean. I, understanding only every third word, would try to argue back in English. Most arguments would end with us agreeing to miscommunicate.

So it came to be quite a shock when yesterday, while at Father's Day brunch, my dad suggested we forego all presents this year, and instead, asked each of us kids to give him five minutes of our time.

I was skeptical. This was the introduction to most pyramid schemes, and my dad loves making a quick buck, even at the expense of his offspring.

Still, I had little choice to contemplate this offer, as he proceeded to begin his mini lectures without any of our approval. Each child, there are three of us, were to receive both compliments and criticism.

My brother and sister still live in LA in close proximity to my parents, so their five minutes stretched out into the double-digits.

I, on the other hand, live hundreds of miles away and have always been physically or emotionally distant from this man. What could he say about me?

He doesn't even know my birthday--  can he really deconstruct my deepest character flaws?

Dad said that I was perfect in every way, except my attitude.

"Too cool," he said to me. I was excited! I had never been accused of being too cool before-I was now in the ranks of James Dean, Ray-Bans and people from San Francisco.

"No no no... I meant too cold," he quickly corrected himself.

My dad and I don't get along. We rarely do, and I'm not about pretending things are okay when they're not. I do enough of that in every other facet of my life.

I told him this, and that was precisely the problem. My acerbic wit, my delicious sardonic tongue, my eloquent sarcasm-- this was my fatal flaw.

"You say whatever you want and you don't think about how it will affect anyone else," my dad continued.

I was offended. This whole time, I thought I was entertaining everyone with my jokes. My sister thinks I'm a laugh riot. My mom calls me the funniest person she's ever known. (Clearly, these people need to meet new people.)

I had always assumed that my advanced sense of humor was lost in cultural translation with him. My dad, who studied at Berkeley and essentially began the Diet Coke trend, still eschews most American traditions, including sarcasm, or so I thought.

No, the old man got it. Apparently, he was familiar with every biting remark, critical jab and underhanded compliment that I had been spewing through the years. But he didn't find any of it hilarious.

John M Grohol, PsyD, writes:

"Sarcasm is simply saying something intended in a mean-spirited, derogatory or unpleasant manner while meaning the exact opposite. Most people who use sarcasm expect that the recipient of the sarcastic message to recognize the contradiction."

While I thought I was being funny, I really had no idea that I was being that hurtful.

Sure, I know that some sarcasm can come across as cruel or unusual, but I always assumed that the trade-off in laughter more than compensated for its pain.

Isn't that the reason why so many people, when describing their favorite qualities in people (or themselves) will often cite sarcasm as one?

The reality is: NO.

Not only do people actually dislike sarcasm,  lots of them don't even "get it."

In April 2006, Patricia Rockwell conducted a survey among 218 individuals evaluating their use of sarcasm and other personality traits.

One of the questions asked respondents to describe a sarcastic comment that they remembered making:

"Of the 218 respondents, 73 produced usable responses to this question.
Respondents reported messages that exhibited more positive rather than negative
language, more other-directed than self-directed messages, and more teasing rather than serious messages."

So is it really that big of a deal that people don't understand what they're saying?

In her paper, Rockwell continues:

"[R]esearch into sarcastic messages involves the severity of the remark. Many researchers have suggested that most sarcasm is light-hearted or teasing (Gibbs, 2000), but others have noted that much sarcasm is highly destructive anddamaging to relationships (Anolli & Infantino, 1997; Leggitt & Gibbs, 2000)."

According to personal coach Susan Britt, "The wounds of sarcasm are not just emotional. According to a study at Ohio State University, couples who used ‘sarcasm, put-downs, overt nastiness and dismissals' were found to have more weakened immune systems than couples who settled their differences in more positive ways."

A few months ago, my friend and I visited a Buddhist temple, which serves really amazing vegetarian food. I was really hungry and thought, What the hell! Let's stay for the service!

The monk spoke about being a good person and living a good life, bobloblaw... and then ended the lesson with, "Sarcasm will prevent you from reaching enlightenment."

Sarcasm was ma raison d'etre and ma joie de vivre. Until yesterday, I had no idea it was also one major wall between my dad and me.

Maybe those five minutes weren't a complete waste of time after all.


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