Is it wit, or hurtful sarcasm?

The use of sarcasm is very common. It enhances communication and may add humor to life situations. Yet, it may also be used in a harsh way that can be hurtful, discounting or humiliating to others. How can we elect to use sarcasm for better communication while preserving others’ esteem?

Sarcasm is defined as “the employment of ironic or satirical language” and “The use of irony to mock or convey contempt.” The former definition does not imply potential harm to others, while the latter signifies an unsavory intent.

Linguist John Haiman, author of “Talk is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation and the evolution of Language,” declares sarcasm “practically the primary language” in modern society. He finds its use as part of our regular communication style. Neuropsychologist Katherine Rankin of UC San Francisco stated, “People who don’t understand sarcasm are immediately noticed. They are not socially adept.”

The human brain is programmed to use and comprehend sarcasm. Rankin lists the parts of the brain that process the tones and nuances of speech. “The temporal lobes and the parahippocampus are involved in picking up the sarcastic tone of voice, while the left hemisphere interprets literal statements.”

Professor Penny Paxman of the University of Calgary studied “how we derive meaning from language and how we appreciate the meaning intended by verbal irony (e.g., sarcastic remarks, like saying “that was smooth” after tripping and falling).” She confirmed other researchers’ findings that many children as young as 5 years old are able to decipher sarcasm from factual information.

Sarcasm research has been studied for marketing purposes as well. In 2010, computer scientists at Hebrew University in Jerusalem developed an Algorithm for Sarcasm which was able to detect 77 percent of the sarcastic statements in Amazon purchaser comments like “Great for insomniacs” in a book review.

Statements like; “Oh, really” “Aren’t you special” “How typical of you” “Yeah, right” or “Big deal” may be innocuous when read, but when heard their tone signifies whether they are supportive or sarcastic.

Some people are more inclined to use sarcasm than others. Some sarcasm users feel that they are clever, witty, charming and gifted with their quips. Though they are not ill intentioned, some may be unaware that though their humor entertains some, it may hurt others. A few people may feel empowered, superior and witty at the expense of others, which is unkind.

The recipients of personal sarcasm often do not rebuff the sarcastic statements but nurse their hurt in silence.

When sarcasm is self-directed it may be more palatable. Yet, when one diminishes himself/herself, the listeners may become equally unnerved by the self- deprecation they witness. It is awkward to rectify one’s self-shaming.

When sarcasm is employed about a shared situation that no one can control it may relieve frustrations and be heartwarming and bonding.

When you use sarcasm:

  •  Use sarcasm about situations, not about yourself or other people.
  •  Avoid witty quips if they may be at the expense of another.

September 15, 2013

 

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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