The Power of Sarcasm

by Bill Brenner on January 11, 2010

The author explains why humor wrapped in sarcasm is one of his favorite coping tools — even though the edge of the knife can be too sharp at times.

“If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”

The quote is from Alice Roosevelt Longworth, eldest daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt. She was 96 when she died in 1980, and I can’t help but believe that part of her longevity was her legendary sarcasm.

For me, sarcasm is a mental release that allows me to see the humor in some of life’s bigger challenges. Of course, the danger is that sarcasm can sometimes slide into outright rudeness, and I’m sure I’m guilty of that at times.

Here’s how it works:

If people in the family, office or church community are butting heads, you can easily get caught up in what one person is saying about the other. After awhile, you can grow bitter and that will compromise your ability to do your job or be the family member you should be. That’s the danger with me, anyway. But the sarcastic, gallows humor in me will instead look at those situations and find the lightheartedness of it all.

We’re all dysfunctional to some extent and we all screw up. And let’s face it: Sometimes it’s fun to watch. If you can laugh at someone’s quirks and, more importantly, laugh at your own, it’s easier to move on to other things. Easier for me, anyway.

The alternative would be for me to grow bitter to the point of incapacitation. It’s happened before, especially after I realized managing a daily newsroom at night wasn’t fun anymore. I took every criticism as a knife to the core and my workmanship slid steadily downhill. A healthier sarcastic perspective back then would have helped me through that.

I’m sarcastic toward a lot of my friends and family, especially the in-laws. The truth of the matter is that I’m almost always sarcastic toward the people I like. Most of them get it and give it back in equal measure, including my father-in-law and kid sister-in-law, who probably gets the heaviest, most ferocious dose of my brand of humor. Both brothers-in-law are regular targets as well.

I’m finding that the kid sister-in-law’s boyfriend is skilled in the art of sarcasm. At a family event this weekend, I joked to those eating a salad I made that I didn’t wash my hands first.

“You should write a blog post about why you don’t wash your hands,” he deadpanned. Avoiding hand-washing as an OCD coping tool. I like this guy.

When I’m not sarcastic, family and friends ask if I’m feeling ok. A lack of sarcasm becomes a warning sign. For normal people, this usually works in the opposite direction.

Of course, sarcasm can sometimes work against you.

If you don’t catch someone on a good day, hitting them with sarcasm does more to hurt than to lighten the mood.

Sarcasm is also a root of dysfunction in other parts of my family. Several of my family members are equally sarcastic, if not more so. But I sometimes get offended by it because I feel like people are laughing AT someone instead of laughing WITH them. This has produced a fair share of strain on that side of the family, and I have to claim fault on my end.

If you can direct sarcasm toward someone but get offended when it’s being sent in your direction, that’s hypocrisy. It’s a hypocrisy I’m sometimes guilty of.

I’m working to minimize that.

But don’t expect me to change too much. As I said, sarcasm is a release. It’s a tool that keeps me sane.

And isn’t it better for all of you if I’m  sane?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ann January 11, 2010 at 4:17 am

Gee Bill, I *never* knew you were sarcastic… 😉

Blondie January 12, 2010 at 5:41 am

Matt’s sense of humor is one of the reasons why he and I get along so well. I’m glad you approve, not that that reeealy matters. 🙂

And I always knew I was a target of your sarcasm

Erin Brenner January 14, 2010 at 7:54 am

“Sarcasm” is “a keen or bitter taunt : a cutting gibe or rebuke often delivered in a tone of contempt or disgust” or “the use of caustic or stinging remarks or language often with inverted or ironical statement on occasion of an offense or shortcoming with intent to wound the feelings.”

So why you say the off-color remark is as important as what you say. If the intent is to show your contempt, to point out an offense, or to hurt someone, you are being sarcastic.

But if your intent is to make light of a tough situation as a release, not to wound, that seems to me to be more of a black humor: “humor marked by the use of usually morbid, ironic, grotesquely comic episodes.” It may be something else altogether as well; I won’t pretend to be an expert on humor and all its vagaries.

But I do sense different emotions and intents behind different humorous responses. Sarcastic seems very mean to me (esp. in light of the definition above) and a very different thing from a gentle teasing, not meant to wound at all.

Renee September 15, 2010 at 4:48 pm

My mother in law is queen of sarcasm.She’s constantly poking fun at people for their height or lack of it, people’s jobs,health…u name it she has something in the nature of sarcasm to say abt it…she’s a school dropout,got no career but hates being a housewife as well,has heart disease,and few other ailments and appearance-wise is 140 cms, and a bag of bones.
Which leads one to believe sometimes sarcasm is the only way to cope with poor self-esteem/insecurity/lack of personal fulfillment as well ?

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