April 29, 2014 // Uncategorized

The ‘bite’ of sarcasm

Did you really just say, ‘Yeah right’?

Sarcasm comes from the Greek word “sarkasmos,” which means, “to tear flesh” or “strip the skin.” No doubt sarcasm can be caustic. To be sarcastic is to comment one thing but mean another, in a pithy, derisive, acerbic or taunting way. Sarcasm by nature is insincere.

It is pouring rain on the first day of your vacation. “This is just wonderful!” you exclaim to your wife and kids as you pull back the curtains in the living room.

An office worker jams the copier. “Well, aren’t you smart?” her coworker mumbles under her breath.

A girl is annoyed at her sister, who is eating chips noisily. “Why don’t you chew a little louder?” she says, rolling her eyes.

“I was worried. You’re late!” a nervous wife exclaims to her husband. He retorts, “Yes dear, you know I was out drinking and carousing and carrying on. Geez, what do you think I was doing? I was at work!”

The intention of sarcasm is to diffuse, amuse or wound. It sometimes does the former two, and commonly does the latter.

People often think they are being funny when they are being sarcastic. While frequently sarcasm elicits a chuckle, many times it is no laughing matter. Sarcasm is considered by psychologists to be a form of passive aggressive behavior. Hostile feelings are draped in irony, thus giving the speaker an excuse behind which to hide angry thoughts. Sarcasm might let off steam but it can be biting, and mean.

If you address a sarcastic person, he may say, “I was just kidding” or “What’s wrong, can’t you take a joke?” thus cruelly twisting the fault on you, the listener, rather than the speaker taking responsibility for his own words. This might leave you speechless, feeling blamed for “taking something personally” or doubting the intention of the other.

Television programs and movies are rife with examples of sarcasm. High school halls are filled with young people trying it out on others. The problem is when the adults laugh along, or get into the habit themselves for a cheap giggle or jab. Sarcasm befuddles conversations and introduces uncertainty into situations. “Did she really mean that or not?” We’re not sure. Sarcasm inflicts hurt on others.

Speaking sarcastically when there are children present also sets a bad example for them. Children emulate what they see and hear, and who really wants a four-year-old saying, “I’m so glad you made these Brussels sprouts, Mommy. They look so good.” or an eight year old sneering, “I can’t wait for you to tell me it’s time to go to bed.”

We must say what we mean, and build up, not tear down.

While a little sarcasm might lighten a heavy moment, nobody likes to be on the receiving end of it. An argument might be made that sarcasm, when not directed at a person, can sometimes diffuse an uncomfortable situation and bring levity to a situation. If so, then I submit that occasion is rare. Sarcasm should be like a potent spice used on food sparingly. Otherwise, it contributes toward a cynicism and negative personality, which brings down the sarcastic person and everyone in contact with him. “A joyful heart is good medicine” (Proverbs 17:22) but not humor that hurts.

Ephesians 5:4 says we should engage in “no obscenity or silly or suggestive talk. …”

Matthew 5:37 tells us to say what we mean and mean what we say, that words have value: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.”

St. Francis de Sales in his “Spiritual Exercises” says: “I will be careful neither to criticize, to mock, (and) not to be sarcastic to anyone. It is a sign of stupidity. …”


What can you do when confronted with hurtful sarcasm?

• Don’t acknowledge the comment as being negative. Take it at its genuine face value. For example, if a snarky teenager insincerely says to a classmate: “Nice haircut,” an effective response said evenly and calmly could be, “Thank you! Glad you like it.” This diffuses the jokester, who is now confused whether the person “got” what he was trying to say. Done over time, this can also help train someone to speak genuinely.

• Ignore the comment completely. Just turn away. Or say nothing and look at the person confused, as though you can’t believe he said that. Saying nothing can be powerful. It’s like a mirror, reflecting back on the speaker.

• Respond calmly, “Wow, that was rude.” Then carry on unbothered. A variation of this is to quietly reprimand, “Please don’t be sarcastic.” Then stay unruffled. Giving a strong response can encourage the behavior.

The worst way to handle sarcasm is to overreact or bite back with sarcasm of your own, and say something like, “Wow, that was an intelligent comment.” The problem with doing this is that you are stooping to the level of the one insulting you. You may win the battle, but make an enemy. “What would Jesus do?” is a good thought to consider. Remember kindness begets kindness, and hurtful sarcasm has no place in a Catholic home.

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