Express Yourself

Our Love-Hate Relationship With Sarcasm

Does this particular brand of humor deserve its bad reputation?

Photo: Marccophoto/Getty Images

Sarcasm — the lowest form of wit, hostility disguised as humor—is banned in North Korea. For a mode of expression so widely reviled, it’s everywhere. Used by everyone from Socrates to David Letterman to Jesus Christ, it has permeated language to such an extent that certain phrases like “thanks a lot,” “yeah, right,” and “big deal” are virtually impossible to utter without sounding insincere.

But cracking a sarcastic joke is a dangerous game, particularly in the company of children and strangers and in writing (and you may be up against all three if you’re trying it out on the internet, which might be why it has a stunningly low success rate there). Not only is sarcasm easily misconstrued, its effects are perceived as negative even when it’s interpreted correctly.

“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence,” as Oscar Wilde once wrote. Photo: Napoleon Sarony/Wikimedia Commons

Psychiatrist William Glasser once wrote that the use of sarcasm in the classroom is “as damaging as paddling.” And schoolchildren aren’t the only ones who feel the sting — in his recent book Irony and Sarcasm, Roger J. Kreuz detailed a survey he conducted with college students in which a majority of respondents asserted that sarcasm was always “intended to hurt someone else.”

Why, then, do we find it so funny? Some of the best-loved characters of 21st-century TV (Dr. House, Chandler Bing, and Larry David’s self-parody in Curb Your Enthusiasm, for example) are known above all else for their sarcastic humor. How do we explain the irresistible and enduring charm of—as philosopher Thomas Carlyle put it—“the language of the devil?”

An acquired taste

One way of looking at sarcasm is as an exclusive club we all have to work to get into. Some researchers claim that children usually begin to understand verbal irony (an umbrella term including sarcasm as well as hyperbole and understatement) between the ages of five and six, but this is up for debate — mainly due to the fact that the process of “understanding” a sarcastic remark comprises multiple steps. First, the listener must realize that the statement is untrue and next that the speaker didn’t intend for it to be taken literally (that is, that they weren’t telling a lie). Finally, the listener needs to understand why it was said, whether for comedic effect or otherwise. A five-year-old may have the cognitive skills to get over the first hurdle, but will likely struggle with at least one of the next two. In fact, research published in 1984 indicated that kids as old as 13 may judge sarcasm as a deliberate attempt at deception. Moreover, children with an autism spectrum disorder, as well as those who have suffered brain injuries, tend to toil with verbal irony to a far greater extent.

Nonetheless, young children do sometimes see the funny side of sarcasm — if only because it usually involves incongruous statements. This relates to what is called the “empowerment theory,” which describes children’s ability to find empowerment in telling jokes that violate expectations. Hence kids might find it uproariously funny to hear Dad scoff “Bravo!” after Mom drops a dinner plate on the floor (though Mom will probably be less impressed).

As we get older, we stop interpreting sarcastic remarks as non sequiturs and begin to understand them as rhetorical devices. Their overuse in conversation is one potential reason they’re often met with eye rolls. This isn’t unique to sarcasm, of course; any cliché used in place of an original thought, whether a timeworn proverb or a catchphrase, can have a similar effect. What did Ricky Gervais dub the real lowest form of wit? The pun.

“The sarcastic one”

There’s the common perception that those who frequently communicate by way of an ironic quip are inherently cynical or harboring some deep-seated anger. Some of these stereotypes may be grounded in reality: Cognitive psychologist Albert Katz views the use of sarcasm as an assertion of dominance and associates it with aggressive personality types. On the other hand, frequent sarcasm usage is also correlated with high intelligence, both in popular culture and in academic research. One 2015 study indicated that making sarcastic comments engages a person’s creativity in a way that literal speech does not, concluding “sarcasm, at times, represents a lower form of humanity, but it certainly catalyzes a higher form of thought.”

Other widely held ideas about sarcastic people, as Katz and his colleagues wrote, relate to demographic factors, such as gender (men are largely seen as more sarcastic than women) and occupation (there are “high-irony” professions, like stand-up comedy, and “low-irony” professions, like teaching).

Of course, women and teachers — and even, dare I say, female teachers — can also indulge in sarcasm. So can everyone. Sarcasm has been recognized as universal, transcending generations and demonstrable in every language. A 2000 study of a corpus of 62 10-minute conversations indicated that verbal irony may occur at a rate of once every two minutes in everyday speech.

Kreuz suggests that it all comes down to the Pollyanna principle, which describes human beings’ underlying, passive expectation of positive outcomes in their everyday lives. People should express gratitude for small acts of kindness — that’s why we’re apt to mutter a sardonic “you’re welcome” when our efforts go unacknowledged. Note the asymmetry of effect, however; when somebody does you a favor, the typical reaction is not to quip, “How rude!” From this point of view, sarcastic people are not, in fact, cynical; on the contrary, they are responding to an affront to their belief that we are living in the best of all possible worlds.

Sarcasm may therefore constitute an attempt to take the moral high ground. In some cases, it has a “muting” effect. In a survey of a number of adults and children, all participants across the board found ironic criticism to be less mean than literal criticism. For this reason, saying “bravo!” at the sight of a broken plate is probably a less cutting alternative to “you klutz.” Can we take this to mean that all the literary quotations and parenting articles condemning sarcasm are wrong? Well, not exactly. Content and context matter.

It’s never kind to use verbal irony as a means of belittling someone. However, the view that the intention behind sarcasm is always malicious has given it an unjustly bad reputation. Let’s not overlook the fact that sarcastic jokes can be victimless (like alluding to beautiful weather during a thunderstorm) or even self-deprecating, as exemplified by the ever-quotable Oscar Wilde: “I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.”

I write about words and run about screaming. Irish, currently doing an MA in English Linguistics and Literature.

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