Could We BE More Obsessed with Sarcasm?
By Tyler Huckabee
February 16, 2012
I’m out to dinner with married friends. The waiter asks how we want the check split up, and the couples explain they’re together and our waiter looks to me and asks if I’m alone. “Always,” one of my friends quips.
It’s funny, but, of course, that “always” sinks into my guts and sticks there.
So I get even. I ask everyone if they want to go get an after dinner drink somewhere. They shrug apologetically. “It’s late,” they say. “Work in the morning,” they say. “I forgot,” I say, adding a little bite to my tone, “how boring getting married makes you.”
I am mercilessly sarcastic. This day and age, most of us are. From Siri and sitcoms to The Onion and Twitter, sarcasm is practically an official language.
Quite a feat, when you consider what a fine art sarcasm is. The dictionary calls it a “sneering or cutting remark,” but there’s more to it than that. Sarcasm is scorn in subversive style. Researchers say that recognition of sarcasm is a sign of intelligence in children. It’s an awfully nuanced means of communication—too nuanced, in fact, to be used as freely as we do.
What Do You Mean?
You’ve probably heard it said, “I can’t always tell when you’re being real and when you’re being sarcastic.”
Perhaps because the line between “real” and “joking” isn’t as thick as we usually think.
John Haiman, a linguist at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., says people who use sarcasm are rarely just kidding. The words come from an authentic place, but it’s wrapped up as a joke for protection. Essentially, sarcasm is a survival technique for the insecure. It’s used to make yourself appear to be stronger or better, but it’s not said with enough seriousness for anyone to accuse you of being a jerk.
Another interesting finding of Haiman’s study: Sarcasm is most frequent in the extremes of your social circles—the people you know best and the people you know least. That’s why Twitter is a boundless stream of insincerity. It’s also why the spouse who gets home late from work might be greeted by a dry, “So glad you could join us.”
The increase of sarcasm over the Internet makes sense, researchers say. Sarcasm is an elevated communications trick and you have more time to formulate these jokes from your computer, editing your Facebook comment into the perfect haymaker of an argument closer. But its frequency among family members—people who supposedly care deeply for each other—is puzzling.
Part of the answer might come from an interesting thought a friend related to me. “Show me a sarcastic person,” he said, “and I will show you a wounded person. And I can tell you where their wound is too.” It’s true. When we poke fun at health nuts who go to the gym every day, doesn’t that have its roots in some small shame for not being a little more like them? We’ll roll our eyes at an overly affectionate couple, but some of that might come from the fact that we’re not getting any affection at all. When things probe open wounds in our hearts, we chase them out with sarcasm. It’s how we keep ourselves from admitting we’re not as tough as we wish we were.
Perhaps that’s why we’re more sarcastic than we’d like around people we truly love. The husband who is concerned about his wife’s eating disorder but doesn’t know how to address it will only joke with her to “not overdo it” when she orders a dangerously small salad. The mother who is concerned about her teenager’s lack of motivation will toss out a biting little “don’t work too hard” as she goes out to mow the lawn. Our love opens us up to things we don’t know how to address, pains we don’t know how to treat and fears we don’t know how to face. So, we joke about it. And in doing so, we cut the people we love down to size.
And, if someone’s feelings get hurt then, well, they just need to chill. We’re only joking, after all.
Sarcasm and Scripture
“Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no,’ ” says Jesus in Matthew 5. “Anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” He’s talking about the archaic biblical practice of making oaths, but you don’t need to be a Greek scholar to see the broader implications. Let your “yes” be “yes.” Say what you mean. Give nobody any reason to doubt what your word is. Not even yourself.
I won’t say to never be sarcastic. Wielded carefully, it’s a useful linguistic tool. God, sounding a bit wounded Himself, uses it in Judges when the Israelites ask Him for a little help after decades of worshiping idols: “Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress!” Sarcasm isn't always problematic—but using sarcasm as a substitute for what we really mean isn't only ineffective, it's ultimately wounding.
Our culture will perhaps continue to be mercilessly sarcastic. It’s a tough habit to break. Sarcasm never exists in a void, and can usually find its roots in some unexplored wound. But would that wound heal faster, maybe, if we weren’t so insistent on using sarcasm to pick the scab?
Tyler Huckabee is something else. He lives in the Great Plains were he produces videos, directs plays for the Colonel Mustard Amateur Attic Theater Company, and writes a monthly column in the Lincoln Journal Star. He tweets, tinkers around on a blog and has contributed to Stereo Subversion, goTandem and Videogum.