The movie Lily’s husband had picked out for them to watch made her hoot with laughter—for all the wrong reasons. She jokingly critiqued the bad script, the bad acting, and the lame special effects throughout. “Well that was a real five-star selection!” she smirked as they cut off the ending credits. Nick shrugged sheepishly and said, “All right then, next week the choice is on you—and you’d better like it!”
Humor can be a sign and expression of intimacy in couples, families and among friends. But sometimes jokes—like Lily’s—don’t come across as innocent or playful as we intend them to be. When it’s biting and sarcastic, humor can cross the line and hurt the ones we love. The research for my book The Kindness Challenge showed that even good-natured sarcasm can take a heavy, secret toll. Not just for the recipient but, surprisingly, also for the person making the jokes.
If you naturally tend toward biting, sarcastic humor, here are six ways those harsh zingers could be negatively affecting your relationships.
#1: People Stop Trusting You
Think about it: aren’t you wary of someone who is frequently sarcastic with you? Well, if you’re the one being sarcastic, that’s the way others view you. They figure if you so easily make fun of them (even if it’s “all in good fun”), you’re not someone with whom they can share important things that matter to them. Now, if they know with 100% certainty that you care about them and the zingers are infrequent, then the jokes are just seen as jokes. But if either of those conditions are broken, people will doubt that you really care and will keep themselves at a distance.
#2: You’re Training Yourself To Be Cruel
Of course you don’t think of it that way. But those quick-witted, sarcastic remarks that are so funny are mostly funny to you. Sure, the person you’re talking to might laugh and joke back, but they secretly sense a cutting truth behind the teasing. Or that the humor was trying to put them in their place. Neither feels good . . . and you’re imposing that discomfort on others over and over again.
#3: You Won’t Get an Honest Opinion
If you’re known as someone who always makes funny, biting remarks, you are almost certainly ensuring that you won’t hear peoples’ true opinions or beliefs. People are smart. It is far safer to keep their thoughts to themselves than to risk a sarcastic—and potentially embarrassing—response from you. So they’ll be guarded with what they express and reveal to you. As a result, you end up missing out on helpful input. And you lose two key elements of a healthy relationship—intimacy and authenticity.
#4: Forget True Closeness
Real closeness requires real vulnerability. And guess what the one thing is that your friends and family feel they can’t have with you? That closeness. And it goes both ways: you are probably holding yourself back from closeness, too. In families and friend groups where there’s a lot of love but also a lot of sarcasm, we found that people, without realizing it, put up walls and rarely share what they are really thinking. Because if they do share a vulnerable, honest feeling out loud, everyone is waiting for the moment when it gets turned into a joke.
#5: Sarcasm Tends To See The Negative, Not The Positive
Sarcasm secretly feeds on itself. The more you notice those things worth a zinger—foibles, faults, flaws—in the people around you, the more negative things you find to insult rather than finding positive things to applaud. Sarcasm rarely or never seeks out the positive. Eventually, it will be difficult to find the good in people. Negativity breeds negativity.
#6: Sarcasm Sets The Tone Of The Room
Sarcasm is contagious. The more you use sarcasm, the more it spreads to others. It sets the “no vulnerability here!” tone for the room. And it erodes everyone’s kindness filter that censors harsh, biting banter and encourages courteous, uplifting conversation. Without that filter, there might be laughter among the group, but it will be the uneasy and uncomfortable kind.
Let’s be clear: you don’t need to lose your sense of humor. Just use your “gift of the zinger” sparingly. Be intentional about looking for the positives in people and situations rather than the negatives and highlight those good things. You’ll notice a difference in yourself (hello, more joy!), and you’ll notice sweeter, more open relationships—and more joy-filled, lighthearted laughter—all around you.
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Shaunti Feldhahn loves sharing eye-opening information that helps people thrive in life and relationships. She herself started out with a Harvard graduate degree and Wall Street credentials but no clue about life. After an unexpected shift into relationship research for average people like her, she now is a popular speaker and author of best-selling books about men, women and relationships. (Including For Women Only, For Men Only, and the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage).
Her newest book, The Kindness Challenge demonstrates that kindness is the answer to pretty much every life problem, and is sparking a much-needed movement of kindness across the country. Visit www.shaunti.com for more.