Words Can Harm: Sarcasm

Submitted by on Sunday, September 3, 20063 Comments

Sarcasm is using irony to mock or convey contemptSarcasm

This is Part 4 of a 7 part series entitled “Words Can Harm. Words Can Heal.”

When I just meet someone I am on my best ‘word behavior.’ They usually do not find out I am a mouthful of facetious wit and cleverly worded humor until much later. (#INFP Problems.)

As I grow more and more familiar with them and like them, my boundaries will soften. If they like me back, theirs will soften. And then, going further, maybe a mutual friendship blossoms.

But what happens when my new friend has unresolved anger or enjoys the use of sarcasm? Or, maybe worse, mistakes my light-hearted irony for ‘sarcasm’ and then lowers the bar into Sarcastic World and then feels free to sarcasm with impunity? Once in a while, I can understand. But I have made friends with people where every other statement seems to be a passive-aggressive mocking or a belittling of someone, some idea, or something. And it’s tiring; Tiring and boring.

But more than tiring and boring, and why this matters, is because sarcasm can be harmful to self and relationships.

But First, This is Not Sarcasm

Conversations or statements made with good humor without being belittling or passive-aggressive are NOT sarcasm. A comment or phrasing with light-hearted irony, metaphor, facetiousness, hyperbole, or humorous flippancy is NOT sarcasm. Telling the plain Truth with words is NOT sarcasm; Meaning precisely what your words are saying is NOT sarcasm. Creative word usage with well-intentioned meaning is NOT sarcasm.

  • Looks sweeter than a migraine.
  • It’s raining like we need to build an ark.
  • Thanks for making my day a lot brighter.
  • Your hair is incomparable to your visage.
  • Please quit confusing my understanding with truth.

This article is not about becoming a conversational bore. I hope it proves to be about the many creative licenses we can use with our expression that is not sarcasm. Sarcasm is a specific lineage of irony that delves into passive-aggressive expression or anger/belittling/mocking.

Sarcasm is Not Honest

I have noticed a pattern in my life with certain people that because I relax my boundaries with them, or even allow a merging of boundaries with theirs, that some people have thought it would be an okay idea to say something particularly hurtful or to begin using sarcasm.

It even hurts more because it’s coming from a person I now trust.

Sarcasm is anger. Sarcasm is hurtful. Sarcasm is used when people can’t somehow be honest in their expression of anger. I think it’s passive aggressive coming out and deeply held resentments or anger. Sarcasm is not funny. Sarcasm is not flip. Sarcasm is not irony. Sarcasm is not facetious. Sarcasm is masked anger (contempt) and it’s hurtful because the conveyance (itself) is a lie while the effect is belittling to the one it’s being used on.

Definitions of Sarcasm:

  • Using irony to mock or convey contempt. [Dictionary]
  • A bitter or wounding remark. [Dictionary]
  • Using words to convey a diametrically opposing intent with the intent to belittle, shame, or release anger. [Mine]

How many times has someone been sarcastic to you only to be confronted and they weakly proclaim it as a joke? That’s sarcasm. They can use sarcasm – which is anger seeping out – but then claim they were joking. It’s an often-used cowardly tool for expression.

Facetiousness, Flip, Hyperbole, or Irony: If you enjoy using your quick wit and you are not angry, you’re probably confusing ‘facetiousness’ with the term ‘sarcasm.’ Perhaps a small point for some (not for me) but if we condone the term ‘sarcasm’ while meaning ‘facetiousness’ [or ironic, flip, hyperbole [exaggeration], silly] we’re encouraging people to be okay with sarcasm; giving OR receiving. And that’s not verbally impeccable as it teaches others they can not trust our language or that we should not be able to trust theirs.

Sarcasm -> Sarkazein -> “To cut a piece of flesh”

The root [sark] word of sarcasm from the Latin to the Greek sarkazein literally means “to cut a piece of flesh” and I don’t want anyone doing that to me anymore than I’d want to do that to someone. And yes I have done that. I was raised in sarcasm; Mouth saying one thing but actions doing another. It enabled me to remain walking on eggshells unable to trust the one who engaged in it.

And it’s funny how we learn communication: I hated it when I was sarcastic, but I was so full of anger within my family of origin and this was how we communicated so often I knew no other way to deal with it other than using sarcasm.

Sarcastic versus Facetious, Flip, or Ironic

I am facetious in my conversational expressions. I can also be quite a smart ass. But when I discovered I could entertain and stimulate myself and others while also maintaining integrity in my speech I understood that my silly remarks or quick-witted retorts were not called ‘sarcastic’ despite people laughingly defending me: “Oh she’s just being sarcastic!” Some other terms might be flippant, ironic, quick-witted, humorous; But unless the words are ‘ripping the flesh’ or otherwise disguising subversive anger with the intent to belittle or demean they are not sarcastic.

Examples of Sarcasm

Have you been sarcastic? Or just facetious and silly? Or perhaps serious?

  • Did you say “Good job!” to your child when she came in and showed you her 55 on her test? If she usually gets 30’s then this not the same thing if you are trying to express sincere delight to her for her 55. If she usually gets higher grades or you were not happy with that grade, you meant that sarcastically. A countermeasure could possibly be, “That is a terrible grade! What happened? Want some help in math?”
  • Did someone explain their feelings on something and you said “AND?” Well that might be sarcastic. That was sarcastic if they completed their sentence and were done and you felt they were done. (It was NOT sarcastic if you really were encouraging them to go on.) A countermeasure of healthy communication could either be a more honest, “I don’t care about that.” or a caring, “I’m sorry you feel that way. Let me think about it and get back to you on it?” When you said “AND?” weren’t you really hiding the fact, or so you thought, that you wanted to convey you could not care less? Well. You not only conveyed that but you conveyed also that you couldn’t communicate honestly.
  • “Good looking outfit!” when a group of people are wanting to belittle someone. Sarcasm is a low form of humor in this context. And though the person may not be specifically angry at the victim of their sarcasm in this context, the attempt to belittle is still there; the intent to ‘rip the flesh’ is still there. Creative people have more evolved creativity in their wit than that. If the intent is to lower one person SO THAT you can feel elevated, this is sarcasm.
  • [ NOT SARCASM ] A 7 year old surprises me by making a pot of coffee all by herself as she exclaims proudly what she did. I say, “You’re a mad genius, I tell you! Mad!” This is not sarcastic. Yes, I am using hyperbole [exaggeration] and a silly adjective [mad] but we both laugh, she is not victimized, I have ripped no metaphorical flesh, and no belittling was involved in the making of the comment. In fact, she feels about like a million bucks and I have expressed [quite lyrically] my sincere admiration over what she managed to pull off without help. Sincerity (honesty) is the key here.
  • [ NOT SARCASM ] A friend says, “I’m so angry I could spit nails!” I reply, “That’s good!!” My friend replies, “Oh it is isn’t it?” And we laugh. My comment might sound ironic but it is not sarcastic because I did think it WAS good. And when she reflected for a second she realized it was good too. [She’d had a hard time getting consciously angry and kept negative emotions bottled in and hurt herself with denial. And we’d been working on it moving into her awareness.]
  • [ NOT SARCASM ] I made a wreck of a dinner one night. It was so nasty I nearly got sick after two bites. My beloved says, “This is good sweetheart.” I stared at him with my eyes cocked. Then I looked toward my friend who doesn’t even ‘know’ sarcasm and she says, “It really is. It’s only a little bit greasy.” I laughed at the two of them as they continued to eat and as I begged them to not indulge me in case they were. [Of course, had beloved said, “This is good sweetheart” and then changed his mind after the next few bites it still would not have been sarcastic because he meant it when he said it.]

Countermeasure to Sarcasm: Honest communication. And this takes practice if you were raised in a household where sarcasm was how you “played around” or communicated. If you catch yourself after you’ve relayed a sarcastic response, which I have done, you can immediately follow up with, “I’m sorry. That seemed to be sarcastic. Let me try that again.”

The Future: Practicing this comes right after awareness that we do it. Maybe it would be helpful if you even employed your friends or relatives in your endeavor to not be sarcastic. Sometimes it’s hard to see ourselves when we have been doing something for so long it has seemingly become who we are. Whenever I have just inadvertently bitten someone’s head off with sarcasm, my usual immediate follow-up is “I am sorry. I did not mean to say that!” And yes, I am genuinely shocked and appalled at myself when I do it.

Sarcasm Degrades Communication

Now, what happens when my sarcasm is followed by another person’s sarcasm is a different matter. Degradation of communication can happen at this point and this is why it is not good to answer like with like. Two wrongs will not make a right. Two wrongs make two wrongs.

If you have been the victim of sarcasm a good response is always an honest one: “I didn’t appreciate that.” or “That was hurtful to me.” or as in our previous examples:

  • Low grade on a test gets a sarcastic “Good job!”  – “Well I didn’t think it was such a good job.”
  • You share your feelings and get “AND?”“And I wanted to share with you how I felt.”

Or if you are unsure whether someone was being sarcastic or not, have the courage to ask for clarification. “When you said ‘nice outfit’ did you mean ‘nice outfit’ or were you trying to tell me it is NOT a nice outfit?”

Point blank may scare the shit out of the cowardly but this is YOUR healing we’re talking about, not theirs. If they have fear when you ‘point blank’ them that’s theirs. And if they have to end the relationship because you’re ‘too __(whatever)__,’ good.

If they can’t handle your desire for clarification or they begin to understand they can’t passively- aggress onto you, they may try to search out better toys.

As long as we never blame or shame the other person but keep the focus on “I” feel this and “I” think that “I”…we leave little margin for another person to perceive we are attacking them which brings us closer to our goal of healthy and effective communication.

Updated November 18, 2014

Tomorrow, in Part 5 of the 7 part series, “Gossip.”
Look for it Monday September 04, 2006.




  • Mon said:

    I’m guilty of sarcasm. Not just in a fun way but I’ve also used it in a hurtful way. It’s hard to break that habit! And I should know better.

  • samsara (author) said:

    Well… It was hard to break for me. I remember often as a teenager using it because it was “my” way to “show my friends” I was clever.

    As I get older I find other ways to be clever. Word puns, jokes at myself, facetious pokes at politics, flip statements…cute anecdotes, repetition of punchlines…

    I have grown sensitive to when I use sarcasm. It hits me that I don’t feel good about myself – that I lacked the courage to be honest. I really do think sarcasm is repressed resentments coming out. I wonder if that may be true for you?

  • J. said:

    Hey Sam.

    I just wanted to let you know that I took the time to copy/paste this article into an email and emailed it to myself. I printed it out and stuck it on my mirror where I read it every weekend while glancing at it every day.
    It’s been about five months or so I imagine and I haven’t been eaten up with sarcasm. I also have something figured. The more sarcastic I was the more angry I became on the inside. Then I couldn’t be sarcastic enough

    Thanks for being cool.
    No longer sarcastic –
    Your friend,

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