Recently I led a team building session for a federal agency group in which the team’s manager had a bad sarcasm habit. He used sarcasm for everything—to make points about the work load, to highlight his people’s weaknesses, even to talk about challenges the team was dealing with in getting the job done. He didn’t see it as sarcasm; he called it humor and he and the team often talked about how important it was to have a sense of humor on their team.
When I left, one of my parting comments was that sarcasm should never be used to say something important, because no one would take it seriously and feelings might be hurt in the process. Sarcasm, I told them, was often used as a protective mechanism to give what might otherwise be constructive criticism. If they recipient gets it, great; if he doesn’t get it or is offended by it, you can say, “hey, I was only kidding, can’t you take a joke?”
Then last week I read a great column in the Vital Smarts newsletter by Kerry Patterson, called “Confronting Workplace Sarcasm.” I wish I’d seen this before my team building session because Patterson captures the point perfectly: sarcasm is “humor at its worst—humor used as a tool for taking shots at people, but done in a way that maintains plausible deniability,” he says, adding, “it’s actually quite difficult to defend your right to take cheap shots, dole out insults, and cut people down—all in the name of humor. Trust me. You never want to be the defense attorney when sarcasm goes to court.”
Remember being a teenager? Sarcasm equaled wittiness and sophistication for many of us when we were fifteen or sixteen. Our parents were stupid, stodgy and boring, and sarcasm was the best way to make fun of them. What it comes down to is that some of us grew out of it and recognized sarcasm for what it is, and some didn’t, perhaps because they were good at it and continued to get laughs out of others. It’s not that the folks who continued to use sarcasm as a tool have bad intentions. It’s that no one ever told them that it isn’t really funny. It’s time for all of us to step up and do that now.