Is sarcasm really humorous or hurtful?



Most of us know about the Big Dig–the major demolition in downtown Boston that was planned in 1982 with construction work starting in 1991 and not being completed until the very end of 2007. Few thought the timeline funny.

But we’re talking about a different kind of dig, a verbal one known as sarcasm, which most of us have used at some time to criticize a friend or family member indirectly to get across a point. We camouflage it in humor, so it’s not too obvious, we hope. In reality, are we trying to send a message, dagger and all?

In a bumbling attempt to be funny, we may end up sounding snarky, sometimes hurting the recipient of our barbs. Or sometimes the intent is to be unkind but by masquerading our comment as humorous. Erroneously, we think, that way we don’t come off looking unkind and mean.

As we all know, the best laid plans can go awry.

One lovely spring afternoon Margaret was sitting next to a friend on a bench in a local park, munching popcorn. She reached for her cell phone and noticed her reflection in the screen. She was aghast. “Wow, I hate those wrinkles on my upper lip.”

Instead of her friend saying, “Oh it’s no big deal,” or “I think you’re exaggerating,” she instead said: “Yeah, they look like a set of pleated drapes. You should consider filler, or you’ll probably never be able to post selfies again. Ha. Ha.”

Margaret felt her breath catch, her heart race. What was her friend thinking? Margaret sort of chuckled and then let it go. She knew the person well enough to accept that she wasn’t trying to be mean but funny. But was it really funny when she was the butt of the joke? She didn’t think so.

Comments like these can crack a friendship apart when the giver of sarcasm may realize a beat too late that it wasn’t humorous. Sometimes, they never do.

We came up with a rating system we call “The Snarky.” It’s on a scale from 1 to 5, with five being the ultimate in snarkiness. Here are more examples of sarcasm that can set a match to an ordinary situation causing a relationship to go up in flames.

Here’s our rating of each:

1 snarkie.

Know exactly how to take this and you don’t like it at all.

One friend: I really like these boots and need a new pair. I have been looking forever.

Response: I didn’t think you could afford this kind of expense? Did you win the lottery or something I didn’t know about?

2 snarkies.

Not sure how to take this, whether a hit or a left-handed compliment.

One friend to another: I met a really cute guy in the grocery line today. We talked, and he took my number. I hope he remembers me.

Response: You’re not exactly subtle–more like concrete. You make quite an impression when it’s freshly poured.

3 snarkies.

Funny but rude.

I think I’ll donate my blood to the red cross. They need type O+.

With all the carbohydrates you eat, are you sure they’ll take it when your blood is probably 90 percent sugar?

4 snarkies.

Really rude. This burn leaves scars.

One friend to another: How do you think Sally looks?

Response: She didn’t do well with the test of time. Her face looks like a Rand McNally road map.

One friend to another: I’m gaining so much weight. I need to lose.

Response: How about trying a healthy cooking class, a fast-paced pickleball tournament and avoid sitting on the couch texting and watching reruns of “The Biggest Loser?”

5 snarkies.

The ultimate in rudeness. Very hurtful.

A friend is eating ice cream and complaining that she’s gaining weight. Instead of being supportive and saying something like, “It’s no big deal to cheat occasionally,” she says in an attempt at humor: “It’s really not good for you, you do know that, don’t you? Are you trying for an early death?”

Husband to daughter with wife within earshot: “Those lattes are really showing up on Mom, aren’t they?”

Sarcastic people fancy themselves to be comedians like the guys in those sitcoms who throw out sarcastic quips like Donald Trump tossing out paper towels after Hurricane Florence ravaged Puerto Rico. Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is a prime example.

Oscar Wilde, the playwright, said that “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence.” It doesn’t seem very intelligent to us to poke fun at someone, Oscar, even if you think it shows creativity.

There are better ways to express ourselves creatively: play an instrument, bake and decorate cakes, compose music or write something nice to make someone feel good. What a novel idea! Now, that contained a bit of snark, we’ll admit.

Sarcasm can even bite more when it’s in a text or an email that is devoid of emotion or intonation and said with emojis.

Text: Can you meet for dinner tonight?

Text in response: I don’t like to go out after 7 pm.

Response: Ok. Sure, I understand.

Two days later the person who sent the original text sees that her friend has RSVP’d to a party that starts at 7:30 p.m. So, you send a text. “I see you’re going to Brian’s party. I thought you don’t go out after 7p.m.”

Is there a way to capitalize on creativity without the sting? One study on sarcasm showed that it comes down to trust as to how the recipient of the sarcasm reacts. If it’s a really close friend or a partner, you might let it go. You know they are trying to be funny and not hurtful–or you can turn to them and say on the spot, “That’s mean.” If it happens repeatedly, that may be a good time to speak up. But if it comes from someone you don’t trust or know as well, it can make you angry.

And some of us might hold on to the hurt and analyze the thought behind it for a day or two-or longer. Then, we decide to either confront the person or let it go. Perhaps, you figure that person isn’t important enough in your life to spend time discussing it. Then, you can make the decision to avoid that person in the future or at least step away or give the person a second or third chance.

Best scenario: We hope we can help stop sarcasm at the pass. What about a T-shirt? It can say: Avoid Sarcasm: The Big Dig and have a picture of a shovel digging a big hole.

If you’ve offended and know it- maybe the recipient of your sarcasm didn’t laugh–in that moment, turn around, look the person in the eye and very kindly say, “Believe me, I apologize. I think you’re great. Don’t you know that? I hope you know that.” And then hope this sounds sincere. You can prove you’re clever by sharing your creativity kindly rather than doing so with a sarcastic kick.