Sarcasm [sahr-kaz-uhm]

  1. Harsh or bitter derision or irony
  2. A sharply ironical taunt; sneering or cutting remark

(from Dictionary.com)

Guess what this article is about? If you said “sarcasm,” you are a genius! That’s sarcasm, folks. Most of us think sarcasm is humorous and lighthearted, not as dark and heavy as defined by the dictionary. Sarcasm can be bitter and cutting, but thanks to popular television shows like Seinfeld, Friends, The Office, The Big Bang Theory, Roseanne, and Modern Family, we’re used to it and we like it. People who use sarcasm to make a point and lighten the mood are considered witty, smart, and even cool. So of course, everyone just uses it, right? Umm, no.

Degrees of Sarcasm

As suggested, there are different kinds of sarcasm and it’s important to be able to differentiate between them. For instance, if you know someone who consistently says “Really?” or “Seriously?” (especially if they say the word “like” first), you have a seriously sarcastic individual on your hands. Sure, it is annoying, but they are usually harmless. But what if they take it a step further, to “You’ve got to be freaking kidding me right now!” or “You can’t be serious!” This is still sarcastic, but it’s more aggressive and could be hostile.

Sarcasm has changed with the times and the perception of it depends very much on who’s hearing it. Let’s try another example. What if you overheard someone say, “There were enough women at the meeting to start an entire HR department”? Since HR is a mostly female profession, you might laugh at that one, but what if you overheard “There were enough silver-haired ladies with reading glasses to start an entire HR department”? Whoa now! This example targets a specific age group in a stereotypical and insulting way, which removes any humor.

Using sarcasm effectively doesn’t come naturally to everyone. For many, it takes time, energy, practice, and research. Sarcastically clever people can hone their craft by paying attention to sarcastic jokes they may hear, including one-liners and quotes, so they can add it to their vocabulary. Here’s another example of sarcasm, which I borrowed from a recent television show where the main character asked his friend what she thought about his jacket, “Well, it’s not my least favorite, but it’s definitely not my favorite.” Nice!

Sarcasm and Employees

In order to break down the effect sarcasm can have among employees in the workplace, we have to split them into two categories: those who like sarcasm and those who don’t.

Let’s start with those who don’t like sarcasm. Sometimes it’s because they don’t always understand it. In a recent article by Richard Chin on Smithsonian.com, according to Katherine Rankin, a neuropsychologist at the University of California at San Francisco, “People who don’t understand sarcasm are immediately noticed” and are labeled “not socially adept.” John Haiman, a linguist at Macalester College in St. Paul Minnesota and author of Talk is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation and the Evolution of Language say of sarcasm, “It’s practically the primary language” in our culture today. Those who don’t get it may not have a sense of humor and/or could be terribly defensive-minded. This can cause problems when they’re communicating with others because most of us use sarcasm and don’t even realize it. (I know you’re thinking “yeah, right.”)

If you like sarcasm, then you’ll be happy to know that its users can be incredibly intelligent, easy-going, and fun to be around. They can lighten the mood of any conversation, and usually, do it without hurting anyone’s feelings. Sarcastic people are usually well versed in pop culture, especially music, television, and movies.

However, it’s not all good news for #teamsarcasm, because it turns out that sarcastic people can be difficult to communicate with—because instead of listening, they’re trying to figure out when they can interject their next sarcastic remark.  Also, it’s harder for many of us to talk to sarcastic people at work because it can take too much time and energy to keep them focused on the conversation. It can also be difficult to get “straight” answers from sarcastic people. I mean, they’re sarcastic, right? Generally, people don’t trust sarcastic people as much, for fear they may use what they learn in a sarcastically negative way.

Personally, I like a little sarcasm; it is clever and funny. Using sarcasm at work is similar to using jokes and profanity at work. You have to know the limits, understand your audience, and see whether in a given instance it’s appropriate or a distraction. I just wonder, with all of the sarcasm that’s around today, if we can even tell the difference.

Chris Fields

Chris Fields is an HR professional and expert resume writer with more than 13 years of experience as a former practitioner and current HR consultant. He is the curator of two websites: CostofWork.com and ResumeCrusade.com , and contributes HR-focused content to many others, including PerformanceICreate.com and SmartRecruiters.com . He has been listed by the Huffington Post as one of the “Top 100 Most Social Human Resources Experts to Follow on Twitter”, one of the “Top 40 under 40” by the HR Blogger Network, one of the “25 Must-Read HR Blogs in 2013”, and also featured on Oprah.com. He is very active with the Society of Human Resource Management, working closely with conference directors, communication chairs, and social media teams from Illinois, Oklahoma, and Tennessee to develop social strategies to engage attendees and enhance their conference experience. Chris earned his master’s degree in Labor and Human Resources from Ohio State University. In 2005, he moved back to his hometown of Memphis, TN, where he has developed a reputation for helping his clients create HR strategies, and individuals master the tough economic challenges of the South.

4 Comments

  • Avatar Julia S. says:

    OK! It’s one thing to watch sarcastic scenes on TV, but it’s another to face them in real life. It’s not that fun, especially when you are the target. It takes much effort to handle your emotions and sometimes much time to cool down after you face a sarcastic attack. 

  • Avatar Micha K. says:

    I never thought that there are degrees of sarcasm, but now I understand why some comments are more offensive than others. It’s not about my sense of humor, it’s about the feeling sarcastic people put in their words. Nice article!

  • Avatar Berta P. says:

    Is it true that only clever people can be sarcastic? It seems to me that some people just laugh at others to show their superiority and higher intellect. But in fact they are simply hiding their lack of confidence and their personal problems. It’s like Dr. House, who was sarcastic to people because of pain and loneliness.

  • Avatar Dyson says:

    Like all powerful weapons, you don’t want sarcasm to blow up in your face. I once worked for an uptight, hyper-organised and over-sarcastic supervisor, and was sent in my first week to an interview.

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