How to survive sarcasm intact

Often, sarcasm isn’t funny; the often biting ‘humor’ has the power to hurt its targets more than actual criticism

Special to The TribuneOctober 1, 2013 


Sarcasm is a harsh, derogatory style of speech that uses humor and exaggeration to inflict emotional pain on its listener. For example , a sarcastic teen may call out “Hey Einstein! How’d you do on that last test?” to a student he knows is struggling in that subject.

Sarcasm is the stealth bomber of hostile communication. It enables speakers to deliver debilitating barbs in an indirect, often undetectable fashion. Victims feel stung by the words, yet they may not fully understand what just happened. If they challenge the perpetrators’ intent (“Hey, why did you say that?”) speakers blithely justify their actions (“I was only kidding. Don’t be so uptight.”)

The impact of sarcasm depends on a variety of factors. Such complexities as the amount of distortion used, the relationship of the speaker to the recipient, the severity of the criticism and whether or not it happened in a public setting determine how wounded the recipient feels.

A foursome of golfers may repeatedly exchange sarcastic remarks about one another’s shots without inflicting any personal damage. But a new employee trying to impress her male boss is devastated when he makes a crack about her frumpy wardrobe.

People frequently resort to sarcasm as a kinder, gentler approach to criticism. They believe coating negative comments in humor makes them easier to hear.

In reality, the opposite is true. Researchers Maggie Toplak and Albert Katz found that sarcasm is viewed as more offensive, verbally aggressive, anger-provoking and mocking than direct criticism.

Sarcasm is also more acceptable among men than women.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that male students were more likely to perceive sarcasm as lighthearted humor than a form of aggression. They openly admit to being sarcastic most of the time; females rarely see themselves that way.

In addition, the women studied said they would feel sad and concerned if they were to hear prolonged sarcastic remarks from friends and loved ones. Males said they wouldn’t be emotionally damaged by sarcasm and that they wouldn’t care if a friend of the same sex made sarcastic remarks to them.

There’s no doubt sarcasm can be harmful to our relationships. It’s a time bomb that leaves psychic carnage in its wake. Being sensitive to others’ feelings averts potential problems and ensures our words are agents of good.


Don’t take their sarcasm personally. Sarcasm speaks volumes about the speaker and almost nothing about the recipient of the words. Avoid the temptation to play the victim. Instead, hold your ground.

Assess the situation. Is the speaker having a bad day? It’s probably best to do nothing at all. If he’s really trying to make a joke, then laugh and shrug off any hurt feelings. Perhaps he’s always sarcastic, in which case his comments don’t warrant a reaction.

Ignore the comment. Pretend the speaker didn’t say what she did. If she’s looking for attention, this will hopefully encourage her to stop.

Consider the speaker’s motives. He may feel insecure and want to improve his status. Or she may always grab center stage and put everyone else in their place. If you identify the underlying issue, you may be able to avert further emotional jabs.

Correct them. Use facts and rational statements to counteract hurtful exaggerations. If your husband says, “That hairstyle looks awful. Did you just wake up?” reply, “No. I wanted to try something different. Sounds like you’re not thrilled.”

Confront them. Point out the negative pattern and make it clear that the statements feel bad. The speaker may make an effort to change things. If not, you’ve had your say.

Sever ties if necessary. Sometimes the sarcasm is intolerable. The relationship just can’t be saved. Seek out other, less critical, companions who are emotionally safer to be around.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit

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