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How to Eliminate Sarcasm

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

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Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

Kerry’s recent article, Confronting Workplace Sarcasm, unfortunately resonated with me as someone who uses sarcastic humor and often fails to see the negative impact it makes. I am intrigued by Kerry’s assertion, “And so, I said goodbye to that part of me” and wondered if it was as easy as that statement sounds? Did you have to tell everyone you were trying to eliminate this habit and give them permission to call you on it? I, too, have had similar feedback from my wife, but I have failed to take the next step—much to my chagrin.

Chagrinned

A  Dear Chagrinned,

You’re right. Nobody rids him- or herself of the “fun” use of sarcasm in one clean swipe. In my case, employing sarcasm wasn’t a mere tic that I had picked up along the way—such as saying “umm” too often or picking my teeth with a matchbook cover—and heaven only knows I have dozens of such tics. In my case, sarcasm was a finely crafted tool I honed and enjoyed for decades. It had all the short-term perks and tantalizing allure of any bad habit and was not going to go quietly into the night.

At first, I did exactly what you said. One day, after I had been particularly derisive with my wife, she informed me that my “sharp tongue” wasn’t something she admired. This revelation came as a total shock to me in that we were newly married, we had reared no children as of yet, and I still held a rather high opinion of myself. Shocked that my wife didn’t share in my love for irony, I swore that I would no longer hurl sarcastic remarks at her. In return, she hugged me, vowed to hold me accountable, and threw a party.

This method of influence helped a little, but eventually turned out to be insufficient because it required far too much monitoring on my wife’s part and didn’t get to the underlying causes of my problem. At its root, I preferred using irony to taking part in an honest and direct discussion. I was good at sarcasm. It brought me pleasure. Plus, I didn’t always see the negative effects of my verbal assaults. Sure, some of the people I put down would flinch a smidgeon, but more often than not, others around me would laugh out loud at my “clever” remarks or even high-five my efforts.

Then one day I said to my wife, “Oh I’m sorry, is vacuuming the living room beneath Your Highness?” She didn’t flinch. Instead, a tear came to her eye as she yanked the vacuum away from me and stomped into the next room. The tear got me. What was I thinking? Did I really need to get a cheap laugh or try to win an argument by using derision and irony—at my sweetheart’s expense?

I wasn’t perfect with my wife from this moment on—but I tried to be.

But then there was everyone else out there. I was raised in a university environment where professors routinely mocked their students for making naïve or inane responses. And being the team player that I am, I honored this fun university tradition.

“It appears to me, Mr. Johnson, that you missed the part of your undergraduate education where they taught logic and reason.”

I said something to this effect during an MBA lecture—everyone laughed hardily—and then I saw Mr. Johnson. There was no tear running down his cheek, but he looked quite wounded. And once again, my wife’s face flashed before my eyes.

Drat! Now I had one more place where I would be on my best behavior. I apologized to Mr. Johnson at the beginning of the next class period, and much like a twelve-stepper, I admitted to my flaw and promised not to use sarcasm with the students again. It was a big step. I now start every college class with a promise to push the students to their best and most careful thinking—but also to respect them.

I was on the mend. First my wife, next the classroom.

And then I had teenagers. If sarcasm is the effect, teenagers are the cause. As my own children grew into their “spread their wings” years I found myself constantly looking for ways to advise, teach, correct, and discipline them—and sarcasm was such a handy tool.

Fortunately, something came into my life right around the same time my children were coming of age and at least partially shielded them from my verbal stings. My research partners and I started studying the interpersonal skills associated with high-stakes conversations where emotions run strong and opinions vary. As you may have guessed, when it comes to holding these high-stakes conversations, using sarcasm is a no-no.

As our studies unfolded, I found a replacement for caustic comments. I learned how to calmly and respectfully describe a problem and ask for input. I learned how to distinguish a motivation from an ability problem. I learned how to motivate with natural consequences and enable others through jointly brainstorming possible solutions. In short, I learned several skills that enabled me to talk directly and effectively rather than tangentially and ironically.

Without these replacement behaviors, I’m quite certain I would have continued to heap on the sarcasm and use other indirect, punitive, and ineffective methods with my teenage children (and anyone else who let me down and then fell under my crosshairs).

Other tools have helped keep me on the path of dialogue. With one of the clients I worked with on a corporate turnaround, the execs used sarcasm so frequently and aggressively that they crafted and wore their own campaign buttons. The graphic on the buttons consisted of a red circle with a line through it. The word behind the line was SARCASM. Wearing these “no sarcasm” badges actually helped the team (and me when I was with them) remember to be on our best, most professional behavior.

On another consulting assignment, the leadership team I worked with created an “abuse jar.” Like the “swear jars” many people use as a tool for punishing foul language, members of this particular team required that each member put a dollar in the glass container every time he or she used harsh humor, threats, sarcasm, or other forceful means. One day when I said something that positively oozed with irony, one of the VPs required me to pony up a dollar. In retrospect, a sarcasm jar would have been a nice tool in my change arsenal.

Focusing on the consequences of my actions, contracting with others, developing alternate skills, creating visual reminders, building in financial incentives—all of these influence tactics helped me strip my repertoire of sneering remarks—but this wasn’t all that I did nor did I eventually eliminate sarcasm entirely.

To help ease my transition from wise guy to normal citizen, I learned how to apply sarcasm in a way that doesn’t harm others. I use it on myself. When teaching classes or writing articles, I make myself the target of ridicule and derision—and heaven only knows I give myself plenty of ammunition. This way I get it out of my system but at no one else’s expense.

And that, my friends, is the caboose to this rather lengthy train of thought.

Kerry

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

20 thoughts on “How to Eliminate Sarcasm”

  1. Dear Kerry, thanks for your insightful and personal writing on sarcasm. I. too, was proficient at sarcasm. First in the workplace some 22 years ago, my C.O.O. took me aside and explained that my remarks, although intended for humor, created pain for others. Also, I was damaging my relationships at the office. He delivered this feedback so well that I was horrified at my own behavior. It was such a cosmic two-by-four that I was “cured”. I never again made a sarcastic remark at work. In my personal life, a few years later, I made a sarcastic remark to my 20 something son. He said to me: “Dad, when you say that it really hurts my feelings.” Again I was appalled at my own behavior and never again made sarcastic remarks to family members or friends. I am seldom tempted to be sarcastic due to these two persons who cared enough to give me feedback.

  2. I do hope that you are not recommending the elimination of the use of humor in interacting with our workplace. Certainly, the examples you sight of sarcasm are mean and put people down, but clever remarks can often lighten the mood and bring people into focus. There is often a balance between being clever and mean, being clever and funny, and being just plain mean. And that is not a fine balance.

  3. Being a heavy user of sarcasm, i can definitely see how eliminating sarcasm against others can only be a good thing. How though do you eliminate it when others around you, those you need to interact with (and are possibly higher up the food chain) use it regularly and obviously don’t have an issue with being like this? You might end up in a situation where you want to fit in – be one of ‘the guys’ (or girls!) – but at the same time you’ve recognised a defect with your behaviour that you want to get rid of.

    Is all sarcasm bad? Or only the sarcasm that is actually hurtful in some way, or directed outwards at others?

  4. What a great article. I have spent several years of my career in Human Resources, and it has always been amazing to me that often HR Departments use sarcasm to let off steam without realizing the detrimental effects this can have on other peoples perceptions and evaluations of employees. They see this as virtually harmless, when it is really not. Thanks for your examples of where this is hurtful. Addressing this issue is a great help to mankind!

  5. As usual Kerry – you have hit the nail on the head with your review of managing sarcasm. I have sometimes been told that I can’t take a joke or that I don’t have a sense of humour…nothing could be farther from the truth. And in fact, sarcasm is like sharing ‘your truth’ but it hardly comes from starting with heart. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom. It means that this type of behaviour can be un-learned.
    Sincerely,
    Cathy

  6. Your response is wonderfully insightful. I, too, was “sarcasm-challenged” for much of my career. Mainly it was a learned mechanism from what I saw in other managers (including my own) as I was working my way up the ladder. My wife was my guiding light, though. She is a very successful executive who has to give people bad news all the time, yet she manages to handle such situations with great compassion & empathy. It took me a few years, but I’ve conquered my misdirected sarcasm.
    (One observation regarding your response to Chagrinned — as one of the cursed English majors, I feel compelled to point out that sarcasm and irony are not necessarily interchangeable.)

  7. I enjoyed your piece very much. Here’s another perspective.

    The Serious Side of Put-Down Humor

    You’re standing in a group, talking, and one of the members starts shooting verbal “zingers” at you. Everybody gets a hearty laugh at your expense. Everybody but you.

    Light (and not-so-light) insult humor has become almost a national pastime. When you’re the butt of the jokes, you may try to shrug it off as harmless, but it stings. And if you’re the one getting laughs at others’ expense, you may not realize what you’re revealing about yourself.

    Let’s shed some light and insight to this common family and workplace experience.

    Verbal Abuse is Not Funny

    For the past number of weeks, I’ve been engaged in coaching work, formally and informally, with groups and teams. Each of these groups had been intact for months; some, for years. Participants represented the spectrum of “types” that might be included in the myriad descriptions of the MBTI or DiSC-type assessments or profiles. So, nothing unusual in the participant makeup.

    However, across teams and groups, I was struck by one behavior that stood out above all others, namely, the propensity for many of the members to consistently engage in making destructive, cutting, sarcastic remarks to and about others in their group or on their team.

    Destructive comments ¬ personal or professional ¬ are those which are hurtful, demeaning, sarcastic and verbally abusive.

    What You Say Matters

    The comments I experienced were directed at folks’ physical characteristics (hair, clothes), perspectives or ideas, life choices (others’ choices of restaurants, movies, sports teams), folks’ current performance, and even where others had worked or attended school. These were not simply run-of-the-mill light comments. There was an underlying anger, resentment and destructive element wrapped inside.

    On more than one occasion, I had to do a “double-take”, and ask myself, “Did I really hear that?” “Did he really say that?” “Did she really throw that zinger at him?”

    What continually came to me was “Why? What is this all about?”

    In Western culture today, the biting, sarcastic, demeaning put-down has become an art form, everywhere ¬ TV, movies, talk radio, sports events, journals and magazines. It’s part of the fabric of everyday conversation. And more, many folks today see such behavior as “business as usual”, as “no big deal.” In fact, when I asked some of these folks if they were aware of what they said, most responded, “No.” or “So, what?” Like I had three heads or came from another planet. For many of these folks, their behavior is a true “blind spot.”

    There’s Always A Reason

    So, let’s return to the question, “Why?”. In my experience in the realm of psychology and psychodynamics, we understand most folks engage in put-downs, sarcasm and barbs as a way to look smart, witty , sharp and cool ( as a defense against their own inner, deeper feelings of deficiency, insecurity, or lack in some way, shape or form). That’s the upside for them. The downside is that the person for whom the comment is directed is often harmed, hurt, demeaned, or otherwise made the point of ridicule.

    When I ask other group participants, “bystanders”, why they often react with laughter, or “atta boy” comments, they generally say they don’t know, they just do. “It was funny.” Basically, a knee-jerk reaction. The truth is many react this way, in the “go along to get along” fashion as they don’t want to stand out as different, serious, politically correct, etc. They want and need to be “one of the boys” so speaking out, or pushing back against such comments and behavior will only serve to get them ostracized. So, they laugh or jump into the banter. (It’s like a verbal gang rape.)

    The deal is, no matter how sharp one is, how educated, how senior in the hierarchy one is, how wealthy one is… no one has the right to strive to look witty, sharp or cool at the expense of another human being, at the expense of being disrespectful to another human being. And, for those who have a need to do so, the underlying question is, “Why? What does it get you? Does it make any difference that you might be hurting someone else?”

    So, some questions for self-reflection are:

    • Can you think of a time today, this week, this month when you made a sarcastic or demeaning remark to a teammate, colleague or co-worker “for the fun it?”
    • Can you remember a time today, this week or this month when you were the recipient of another’s sarcastic or demeaning comment “for the fun of it?”
    • If you have a reputation for being witty or sharp because you are a master of sarcasm, how does that make you feel?
    • If you have a reputation for being witty or sharp because you are a master of sarcasm, would you ever ask the objects of your sarcasm or witticism how they feel? How they really, really feel to be the target or brunt of your jabs?
    • What does sarcasm get you, personally?
    • Do you think others really respect you, or just go along to get along, when they respond in a laughing sense to you behavior?
    • Are you demeaning and sarcastic to your husband, wife, partner, children? How do they like that behavior? Do you ever ask them? Would you? If not, why not? Did you ever think about asking them?
    • Did you ever have to apologize, or think about apologizing, for a cutting remark you made? What was that like for you?
    • Did you ever tell a colleague or friend to stop using you as a target for their destructive words? Did you ever want to but not speak up? Why?
    • Who would you be if sarcasm were not part of your personality? Would you lose some or much of your identity? If so, what would that be like for you?

    (c) 2011, Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D. and SpiritHeart. All rights in all media reserved.

  8. The honesty, candidness and insights to being present to your flaws in the moment are appreciated. In retrospect, the use of sarcasm is hiding behind a mask of inability to address something directly,honestly and objectively and may also be cultural as is marked in American culture. There are other cultures who also employ sarcasm in certain settings but with reserve. I also appreciate the question asked by Chagrinned- by acknowledging the issue you have certainly moved to resolving the problem. Kudos!

  9. I understand the root of the word sarcasm is ‘to tear flesh’. Conversation skills (eg. how to avoid sarcasm) should be part of every person’s elementary school and high school training. Thanks for sharing so openly.

  10. I thoroughly enjoy and profit from your columns, Kerry – thank you!

    May I draw your attention to a small linguistic distraction in your recent column on Eliminating Sarcasm? The sentence is

    “I said something to this effect during an MBA lecture—everyone laughed hardily—and then I saw Mr. Johnson.”

    While I have little doubt that there was an enduring and sustained response to your witticism, might you have meant that the other students ‘laughed heartily”?

    Please keep up your excellent work.

    Stay well, live long and prosper

  11. while i have a lot of respect for and make efforts to develop clear and direct communication, there’s a distinction that needs to be made between sarcasm as a tool to get a leg up on someone and sarcasm as a tool to communicate abstract ideas that aren’t yet clear or able to be made direct. i think teenagers appreciate that the most of any type of communication because of its potential for humor (e.g. exaggerating a silly behavior to show the natural consequences more quickly) and its dependence on the listener as an audience whom one is trying to impress (e.g. as opposed to lecturing someone with clear and direct communication.)
    as long as we start with the heart in order to practice a healthier version of sarcasm, then i don’t see the need to eschew it when stakes are high and would prefer to use it as another tool for joining forces with someone against some silly behavior or another.
    which brings up the last point. if mr. johnson had, in fact, missed the logic and reasoning portion of his education, then why should he be offended that someone called it out, and if he hadn’t then what’s wrong with a playful remark, as long as it’s in fact playful, i.e. motivated by a desire to help and not an attempt to hatefully embarrass him??? the stuffiness i see in science is due to (among other reasons) the desire to be unquestioned, so we tiptoe around issues and the students see exactly where this tiptoeing comes from: big egos. banter among the professionals that gets extended to students then is exactly the comfort needed to establish a culture of easy questioning from curiosity that lacks the bully quality of an ego pursuing its victim.

  12. Kerry, this is a great story. I had an experience similar to the one William Diedrich describes in his comment above. Forty years later, I remain grateful to the supervisor who pointed out what my eyes could see but my mind denied – that I had hurt a co-worker’s feelings.

    The difference between my experience and yours is that mine caused me to examine my underlying beliefs and values (and their source), while yours apparently registered primarily at the level of behavior. It’s no wonder you had such a struggle with it (I say this compassionately, not critically). My total rejection of sarcasm was just the beginning of retooling of my belief systems and ultimately healing the significant wounds of my upbringing.

    Thanks for your openness and honesty. We need more of those qualities in this cruel (sarcastic, et al.) world we live in.

  13. I agree with the concept of practicing a “healthier version” of sarcasm. There is a time and a place to be sarcastic, the key is being able to not use sarcasm all the time and know when it is appropriate. Also, knowing when it is mean.
    A good idea is to identify those friends who are fellow fans of finely-honed witty sarcasm, and with whom you can really “let loose” on each other without any feelings being hurt as a vent to enjoy your “craft”, as well as identifying those sensitive individuals in your life who will be deeply wounded by many statements, however unintentional, and adjust the dialogue according to who you are speaking with.

  14. Kerry,

    Another excellent piece. Will use it regularly moving forward. Thanks for the addition of this new tool in my toolbox for life!

  15. Was in a relationship for 5 years full of sarcastic thoughts. My partner was constantly mad at me, beacause I didn’t think he was funny. Yeah, I did not, he was hurtful. Sarcasm hurts, is abusive and should be eliminated from our brains. For sure isn’t funny.

  16. The thing with sarcasm is it goes hand-in-hand with the “boy that cried wolf” story. When people use sarcasm in almost everything they say, it becomes difficult to believe when they are serious and telling the truth.
    After reading Kerry’s sarcasm story, I made a copy and brought it home to share with my husband. Knowing he would not sit and read the entire article, I highlighted some of the key words and gave him a cliff notes version. Basically, I explained how hurtful his comments can be.
    I have to say that he has done alot better. We are alwasy looking to increase our communication skills and this helped. Thanks Kerry!

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