This is Part 3 of a three-part series to help us nix the negative patterns that may be damaging our relationships. Part 1 tackled suspicion, Part 2 examined grumbling, and Part 3 takes aim at solutions for sarcasm.
One of my friends has a sign in her laundry room that says – in a very official looking font – “National Sarcasm Society.” In small letters underneath, the group’s motto boasts: “Like we need your support.”
The question is: in relationships, when does pithy become … painful? When is our sarcasm really just cover (or seen as cover) for a sense of cynicism, superiority, emotional unavailability or even meanness?
Our research for The Kindness Challenge found that sarcasm holds a special place in the pantheon of our unrecognized patterns of negativity. It is often perceived and rewarded as a strength. And sometimes sarcasm is indeed purely, hilariously, clever and funny, with no downside (more on that in a moment). Yet this perceived strength can also rapidly transform into a real relational weakness.
Yes, hearing this can be alarming for some of us! A common speaking format for me is being interviewed by a pastor onstage as the sermon time during worship services – and a common topic is kindness. More than once, when I’ve outlined sarcasm as one of the seven patterns of unkindness, the pastor has looked pained and said, “But sarcasm is my spiritual gift!”
If you, too, think your gift of sarcasm might have gotten away from you, here are four key questions to ask yourself, along with four transformative strategies.
Question #1: Is it clear to everyone in the room that you feel complete goodwill toward the “target” of your sarcasm?
Solution: Avoid sarcasm where it could be misunderstood.
At its best, sarcasm and joking around can create levity in hard situations. We all need to relieve the pressure valve on life sometimes! If everyone in the room knows that we have complete, unconditional respect and care for the person we are being sarcastic with, then it is just funny.
But what if anyone in the room has doubts about that? We discovered that people are often laughing on the outside … and wondering on the inside if you really mean the sarcastic dig and if you really are that cynical, or mean, or “superior.”
If you’re not sure that people know you unconditionally care about and respect the other person, consider setting aside the sarcasm until you’re sure it isn’t acting like a pinprick to the other person’s heart.
Question #2: Is sarcasm your way of deflecting or avoiding vulnerable feelings?
Solution: Practice speaking sincerely.
A joke to keep things light can be a great tool. If I really do not want to get into a dicey office-politics discussion, a sarcastic joke that it would be easier to solve the national debt might be a lighthearted way to deflect.
But what about when we rely on frequent sarcasm as a mask to deflect attention from our difficulties, or keep others from seeing how we feel? According to a study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, that is an all-too-common coping strategy – especially if we suffer from anxiety and/or depression. Ironically, this pattern can make things worse, not better, because eventually people stop fully trusting us. They see our mask and put on their own, shying away from emotional closeness. After all, emotional closeness requires two things:
- Vulnerability from us.
- Vulnerability from others. And by now, others are pretty sure their own vulnerabilities – if they share them – could become the next sarcastic joke.
In our research for The Kindness Challenge, one wife realized that she and her husband both used sarcasm to cope with the hard realities of having a special-needs son – and it had become a barrier to closeness between them. So they did the 30-Day Kindness Challenge and committed to drop all sarcasm for 30 days. They realized that the opposite of sarcasm is sincerity. If someone told them they were holding up great under the pressure, instead of quipping, “Well, you didn’t see us this morning,” they would say, “Thanks. That means a lot to us.”
Very quickly, they felt more satisfied emotionally. They also leaned more honestly into gratitude for their wins because they were emotionally honest about the hard things they endured.
We can do the same.
Question #3: Do you use sarcasm to score points?
Solution: Practice building others up.
We’ve all heard the compliments that aren’t compliments.
Thank you, Nostradamus.
We and everyone else in the room may be chuckling while we say it. But if we’re regularly flashing cutting wit at the expense of others’ feelings – especially if our subconscious aim is to score points or even put them in their place – it won’t feel good in the long run.
Sarcasm functions like a thermostat. Almost any room will adapt to a lower standard of biting behavior. In fact, researchers at the University of Calgary found that family members seem to “catch” sarcasm from one another. Some families relied on sarcasm heavily, and others not at all – showing that use of sarcasm in families may be related to … well, use of sarcasm in families.
Thankfully, the reverse is also true. Try elevating the mood of your home, work environment, or friend group with positive comments. Just as sarcasm is contagious, so is conversation that builds others up.
Replace nice going with “I can see you tried and I appreciate you.”
Trade smooth move for “It will be okay! Here, let me help.”
And nix thank you, Nostradamus in favor of “I love how you try to anticipate things.”
Question #4: Are you sarcastic behind others’ backs?
Solution: Be kind behind their backs.
We’ve all been in the uncomfortable situation when Friend A talks about Friend B behind her back. Oh, Susan? She sounds better with her mouth closed.
Uncomfortable laughter ensues. Friend A thinks she got a quick win. But instead, everyone just made a mental note: if Friend A can talk that glibly about Friend B behind her back, then Friend A certainly can do it behind theirs.
You may think “I would never do that.” And maybe you wouldn’t. But ask yourself: How about sarcasm about people who seem much further removed? The school board. Your corporate head honchos. Or … people of an opposite political persuasion?
Not so easy to dismiss that one, is it?
When used behind the backs of others, sarcasm is nearly always negative and destructive. Destructive to your heart, to your listeners (who are now that much more likely to see rude behavior as funny and acceptable), and, candidly, even to our culture.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: If the other person would feel bad if they heard you say it, don’t say it. At least not in that way. Look instead for opportunities to speak positively about the person – or ways to disagree or raise hard issues with respect for the other person. What you “sacrifice” in the “quick win” department, you’ll gain in reputational respect from others.
You will very rarely lose respect by being universally kind and gracious. Being overly sarcastic may cost more than we know.
Oh big deal. (And, yes I really mean that.)
Just to be clear: you don’t have to trade your quick wit to become some kind of killjoy! Well-intentioned and kind humor can always elevate the mood in any room.
It’s the cutting, biting piece that needs to go. Our research found that those who stopped using sarcasm (or used it less frequently) gained trust, honesty, and intimacy in their relationships. They also experienced greater gratitude, saw more of the positive, and improved their work and home environments.
Thankfully, if sarcasm feels like it has been your native tongue for too long now, rest assured it isn’t: The University of Calgary research also found that children don’t really “get” sarcasm until they are 5 or 6, and most don’t see any humor in it until ages 8 or 9.
In other words, we’re not born “speaking sarcasm.” It’s something we learn to detect, decipher, and deploy. Which means we can also learn to control it and even unlearn it where necessary.
And that really is a big deal.
Part 1 and Part 2 – and today’s part 3 – in this Nix the Negativity series helped you find simple solutions for common pitfalls that may be harming your relationships, consider picking up a copy of The Kindness Challenge to discover the other four negative relationship patterns – and their solutions!
And if you are interested in having Shaunti speak on kindness for your workplace, church, school or community group, please contact Nicole Owens at email@example.com.
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More from Shaunti’s Blog:
- What Wives Need Most From Their Husbands (Part 1)
- What Husbands Need Most From Their Wives (Part 2)
- What Husbands Need Most From Their Wives (Part 1)
- In Money and Marriage, Remember the Past to Have Faith in the Future
- What Forgiveness Can Teach Us About Creating a Thriving Life – part 2
- What Forgiveness Can Teach Us About Creating a Thriving Life