The Damaging Effects of Sarcasm

As I went about my normal routines the past few weeks, I listened closely for some attention-grabbing examples of sarcasm to include in today’s lesson. I was dismayed at the amount of sarcasm I heard.

When I began to intentionally evaluate the damaging effects of sarcasm, I was utterly shocked at how inappropriate, culturally offensive, and downright cruel most of the sarcastic, off-the-cuff remarks turned out to be.  A few decades ago, they were called cut-lows—what a fitting label.

This experience only reinforced my belief that sarcasm doesn’t belong in our interactions with one another.

Sarcasm Hurts and Offends

Though it’s often camouflaged as humor, sarcasm is really just a convenient way for people to express hurt feelings, criticize others, or disapprove of some action without actually coming out and saying what’s on their minds.

Television sitcoms are loaded with sarcastic remarks and, of course, the viewers laugh at the embarrassment the recipient shows.  Don’t be fooled that these are merely clever sayings from quick-witted individuals. Television writers think they are entertaining the audience, but they are really setting an example for viewers to follow. Our children grow up believing this is socially acceptable.

These sharp, cutting remarks are given with the intent to wound or embarrass.  Sarcasm is hurtful to others. At the very least, it’s got tremendous potential to be misunderstood since there is always a ‘hidden message’ involved. I urge you to consider today whether it’s worth risking alienating another person in the interest of getting a laugh.

When you resort to sarcasm to get a point across in a disguised manner, it demonstrates a lack of conviction and courage to say what you really mean. Although an occasional sarcastic remark may seem harmless, remember that people judge your character every day by what you say as well as how you act. The collective result of those judgments is your reputation.

Break the Habit

My challenge to you is this, and I don’t extend it lightly: will you commit to eliminating sarcasm altogether, in all areas of your life? At home, with friends, at school, at work, and everywhere in between?

I won’t sugarcoat it; sarcastic speech is a very difficult habit to break once it has become a part of your communication style. And it’s especially tough if the people around you thrive on the temptation of ‘one-upping’ each other when it comes to sarcastic comments. The truth is sarcasm breeds sarcasm. It’s just that simple.

With that said, please don’t let this intimidate you or stop you from trying! Here are a few ideas to help you break free from the bad habit of sarcasm:

  • Keep a mental or written list of the reactions and consequences you notice when those around you are the target of sarcasm. This awareness alone will be a powerful motivator to change your own behavior.
  • Think before you speak. Considering how your words will be received is a very effective way to monitor your speech.
  • Enlist a trusted friend or partner who is willing to enter a sarcasm-free zone with you.  Agree that you will hold each other accountable when you hear the other person using sarcasm.

I hope you will seriously consider my challenge to you. You can do it, and your reputation will benefit greatly. What do you say?

Eliminating sarcasm may just be one of the most rewarding personal development steps you’ll ever take because it forces you to better express who you really are and what is important to you.

About the Author: Todd Smith is a successful entrepreneur of 30 years and founder of Little Things Matter. To receive Todd’s daily lessons, subscribe here. All Todd’s lessons are also available on iTunes as downloadable podcasts. (Todd’s podcasts are ranked #27 in America’s top 100 podcasts and #1 in the personal and development field.)

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  • christianna mancha

    I am researching the damaging effects of sarcasm on marriage and I cam across your post. I have heard many people brag about the fact that they are sarcastic, that their families communicate through sarcasm and I knew in reading your article that many people would be bothered by it and say that sarcasm is okay and that it works for them. But I honestly think they misunderstand actual sarcasm and really mean "being facetious." True sarcasm can be defined as "Ironic wit intended to cut or hurt." It comes from a word that literally means to "tear flesh." Whereas "being facetious" is "treating serious issues with deliberately inappropriate humor." or "1. not meant to be taken seriously or literally: a facetious remark. 2. amusing; humorous. 3. lacking serious intent; concerned with something nonessential .." A facetious comment can be witty and lightly ironic, it has no intent to harm or make somebody feel stupid but instead to make them laugh or tease them good naturedly. I think you are right about real sarcasm and we excuse ourselves for insulting someone by saying saying, "I was just joking! I was just being sarcastic." I know you were being sarcastic. That's why it felt so mean. What do you think, Todd?

  • Mel Jones

    Sarcasm is only truly hurtful to those with an inability to pick up on it or it's actual inferences or implications, like people with an autism spectrum disorder, schizophrenia, or frontal lobe damage. In those cases, a speaker has to use discretion, but in all other normal interactions, sarcasm is essential to human development socially, emotionally and mentally.

    In the Smithsonian Magazine article titled "The Science of Sarcasm? Yeah, Right", a lot of good points are made:

    • "Studies have shown that exposure to sarcasm enhances creative problem solving, for instance."
    • "An inability to understand sarcasm may be an early warning sign of brain disease."
    • Katherine Rankin, a neuropsychologist at the University of California at San Francisco says, "'People who don’t understand sarcasm are immediately noticed. They’re not getting it. They’re not socially adept.'"
    • Sarcasm seems to exercise the brain more than sincere statements do. Scientists who have monitored the electrical activity of the brains of test subjects exposed to sarcastic statements have found that brains have to work harder to understand sarcasm. That extra work may make our brains sharper, according to another study. College students in Israel listened to complaints to a cellphone company’s customer service line. The students were better able to solve problems creatively when the complaints were sarcastic as opposed to just plain angry. Sarcasm 'appears to stimulate complex thinking and to attenuate the otherwise negative effects of anger,' according to the study authors."
    • "The mental gymnastics needed to perceive sarcasm includes developing a “theory of mind” to see beyond the literal meaning of the words and understand that the speaker may be thinking of something entirely different."

    That's all I really have to say about it! There are numerous medical journal publications and analyses on the matter that one can find on Google.

  • I am 52 years old and there is nothing that will convince me that being sarcastic to my friends, family and others is good for them. While it may help with brain development the first few times you hear it, there is absolutely no way being sarcastic to others is beneficial to them in the long-term. Saying it's okay to be sarcastic is like saying it's okay to hurt people's feelings.

    The good news is we can all choose how we want to treat others. So much of our personal and professional success comes from our relationships. I choose to build my relationships treating people with respect and dignity.

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