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Sarcasm: Why It Hurts Us


Everyone has someone in their life—possibly a boss, colleague, friend or parent, who loves sarcastic, passive aggressive, barbed modes of communication. They love to ‘tease’ and think sarcasm is well-meaning. However, new research says that sarcasm is merely thinly veiled meanness. In fact, a recent study by shows that teasers usually believe their words are less hurtful than their victim thinks.

The dictionary defines Sarcasm as: “The use of irony to mock or convey contempt”

Sarcasm is a simply a way of covering contempt or hate. So, why do people adopt sarcasm in the first place?

Sarcasm happens for three reasons:

1) Insecurity

Whenever someone around me adopts a sarcastic tone I immediately try to gauge what they are feeling insecure about. For some, using sarcasm or teasing is a way of avoiding confrontation because they are afraid of asking for what they want.

  • Example: (Mother to Son who wants him to shave before visiting Grandma) “Wow you look like a mountain man with that beard. Your Grandma will barely recognize you.”

2) Latent Anger

Sarcasm can also be passive aggressive or as a way to assert dominance. For someone who is angry or upset, but is too afraid to bring it up will often use sarcasm as a disguised barb.

  • Example: (Wife to Husband after husband forgot to take out the trash) “You would think we are living like lazy trash beetles with the way this kitchen looks!”

3) Social Awkwardness

When people are not good at reading those around them, or are not sure how to carry on a conversation they will often employ sarcasm hoping it sounds playful or affectionate. This is another kind of insecurity, but you will often hear loners at parties or networking events use sarcasm as an attempt to lighten the mood or bond. Unfortunately it tends to have the opposite effect—teasees tend to rate sarcastic incidents as malicious and annoying.

  • Example: (Man at networking event) “This buffet spread is pretty weak, guess it mirrors this company’s portfolio, huh?”

Sarcasm is not only hurtful, it is also the least genuine mode of communication. What can you do if you have someone sarcastic in your life? First, you can try sending them this article or posting it on Facebook and see if they get the hint. If that is a little too direct, next time you are with the teaser, take what I call, the “Genuine Approach”. This is when you take everything they say as a genuine comment without the sarcastic tone.

For example, I was recently with a friend of a friend who constantly makes sarcastic comments—preventing genuine conversation. I employed the “Genuine Approach” here:

Her: “Hey I saw you on CNN the other day.”

Me: “Oh cool.”

Her: [Sarcastic Tone] “Yeah I could barely recognize you with all of that make-up on.”

Me: “Oh wow really? That’s not good at all. Do you think people in the audience didn’t know it was me? Should I email the make-up artists about it?”

At this she became flustered and said something along the lines of, “Well it’s not that I couldn’t recognize you, I mean it was, well, oh never mind.” I continued to do this throughout the night and eventually she started to have real conversation with us and make genuine comments—which we received warmly and with encouragement.

Is sarcasm ever ok? How about teasing? Some lighthearted teasing can be ok, but for the most part we should encourage genuine interaction in our communication and try to get to the heart of the person we are speaking with—what do you think they are trying to cover-up with their sarcasm?

Citations:

David Dunning, Self-Insight: Road Blocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself: (Kruger, Gordon, Kuban).

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a published author and behavioral investigator. She is a Huffington Post columnist and her courses and research has been featured on CNN, Forbes, Business Week and the Wall Street Journal. As a published Penguin author, Vanessa regularly speaks and appears in the media to talk about her research. She is a sought after consultant and speaker.


29 Comments


  1. Steve

    Theres a lot of things in life that suck, but instead of being negative about it you be sarcastic. Sarcasm is a creative way of giving your opinion, and people who can’t read sarcasm are the ones that lash out to it negatively. Honestly being literal all the time is extremely boring and seeing just how far you can go with someone sarcastically is a real art. I do not get offended by sarcasm but often there are times where I don’t know if someone is being sarcastic so I will ask them “was that sarcasm?”. Not that big of a deal. Instead of making assumptions that a person is hurting inside or you need to change the way they communicate try being sarcastic with them. You may find that you have closed yourself off to an adventurous and boundless avenue of communication. Also, stop being butthurt by sarcasm, it’s not always meant to hurt and more often than not the person who uses it the most should never be taken seriously. Sarcasm is an imaginative and hilariously ridiculous experience for those who can suspend their negative attitudes toward it. Sarcasm is so powerful it can build monumental significance out of thin air, and give meaning to the otherwise meaningless. Stay open minded.

    1. Vanessa Van Edwards

      Hi Steve,

      I do think one of my least favorite parts about sarcasm is that I don’t always know when someone is being sarcastic or not and it disrupts the flow of a conversation to say, “Are you being sarcastic?” Ugh the worst. But I understand how it can be used in humor and to build rapport with the right personality types. Thanks for adding!

      V

    2. anonymous

      Who in the world are you to tell the author of this article to stop being butthurt and stay open-minded? It sounds to me that you’re hypocritical because there are sarcastic people who are buthurt and closed-minded.

      If you’re sarcastic all the time, you could end up making many enemies.

      Sometimes negativity is important. If you don’t want lots of enemies, then you better lay off sarcasm by being more sensitive and considerate to other people who are different from you.

  2. anonymous

    For your information, this gal is right. Sarcasm can hurt people who don’t understand. I mean, you have to know how to be sensitive and apply it. That’s what my dad taught me.

  3. Ted Friedli

    Vanessa, can you fill in this following oversight? In the last sentence of the first paragraph you wrote, “In fact, a recent study by shows that teasers usually….”. By who?
    I agree with much of what you’re saying here. I have actually had conversations with many of my friends who use sarcasm, that the use of sarcasm is a sign of deeply hidden pain and a passive aggressive approach to dealing with issues they do not have the confidence to approach head on. Many people who habitually use sarcasm as a prefered method of communication are very defensive about this analogy. Perhaps it is just too much truth for them to handle.

    1. Jan Marie Wall

      I agree with Ted Friedli. I believe sarcasm is a sign of a passive aggressive person who has pain and also does not have what it takes to be direct. In one experience I was the recipient of this type of behaviour. I was ridiculed, devalued and mocked with the use of sarcasm and unkindness. When I balked at this toxic behaviour and fled from it, I was told I was ‘too sensitive’ and further ridiculed and devalued. I believe this type of behaviour is the result of jealousy also. When a person cannot deal with whatever makes them jealous about another person, then attack is the easiest and most denigrating form of ‘getting even’ and a way to make the perpetrator feel better. But does it make the perpetrator feel better? I know one thing: Toxic people are not for me! I pride myself in being up front, polite, kind, and as asset to whomever is my friend. I do not want to hurt others and if this seems too pie-in-the-sky and unattainable – well that is how it is!

  4. getmeakitkat .

    I used to have a best friend who was constantly sarcastic. He never smiled but smirked. I put up with it for about ten years. I noticed my self esteem had slowly dipped since knowing him.

    We used to laugh and have a great time sometimes and had a lot in common, but the sarcasm left a bitter after taste. Something in me snapped eventually and I chose the littlest excuse to end my friendship with him. My self esteem and feeling of self worth soared in the following years and I realised my friendship with him was toxic. I avoid making friends with sarcastic people now.

    1. anonymous

      I’m glad that you gave up on sarcastic people, whom I loathe as much as you. If anyone’s sarcastic to me in real life, I’d be openly mean to him or her.

    2. anonymous

      Just so you know that I don’t loathe you because you and I hate sarcastic people. You see? Anyone who’s against sarcastic people are cool in my book.

  5. Bea

    Sarcasm does not have to be about or directed at another person. It can be applied to almost any situation. The type of sarcasm you are referring to can indeed be a form of mocking but whether it can be viewed as truly offensive or not entirely depends on the context in which it is spoken as well as the intent. I am not ashamed to admit that I use sarcasm on a daily basis, in fact, if I am opening my mouth, I am probably being sarcastic. Even my thoughts are sarcastic. That does not mean I am incapable of being sensitive and only set out to mock other people. I tend to mock myself more than others, there’s the insecurity you mentioned. . . and there I detect a tiny hint of sarcasm. Did it hurt anyone? I doubt it. So what we have learned? Kids, play nicely! Don’t pick on your friends, and if you do, just be blatant, it saves a lot of trouble!

    1. homasapiens

      I want to say that i thought the same way as you, for many years– especially the eighties. I thought– I turn it on myself, my friends don’t mind, they know I would never hurt them, I can be sensitive when it’s appropriate…

      eventually i realised that my self-assessment was completely out of touch with what my friends were seeing, and that I had a repustation for being insensitive, bullying, and egotistic.

      Ask your friends, is my advice. But– if you’ve beendoing this for a longtime, be aware that you might not get an honest reaction for a while. You may have taught them not to trust you.

      1. helena

        Hi…you hit it on the head! Using sarcasam teaches people not to trust you. Thats why its so damaging.

  6. Amanda Daley

    I agree with the main idea in this article – that sarcasm comes from insecurity, anger, social awkwardness, and that it can be hurtful to people. But, I don’t agree with the examples you used to illustrate sarcasm. Saying someone looks like a mountain man when they have a lot of facial hair, or that someone looks so different with lots of makeup on you’d hardly recognize them, seem like direct and sincere statements. They are slight exaggerations, but exaggerations of a sincere sentiment. On the other hand, sarcasm is insincere compliments, when you mean the exact opposite, couched in an exaggerated tone because vocal inflection upon delivery is key to making it understood that it is sarcasm. Example: After son fails at a task, father says to son “You REALLY hit the ball out of the park on that one, son.”

    1. anonymous

      Since I’m guessing that’s sarcastic, I don’t think that you should be commenting on tihs article because it’s against sarcasm.

  7. Apple Seed

    Every can be a little sarcastic sometimes, it’s good to be a balanced individual. But there are a few people who are overly sarcastic with sarcasm as their only means of communication, and that’s not only
    annoying, which hampers good conversation but also hurtful which in turn affects the relationship.

    I once had a friend who was sarcastic all the time, and she was proud of it. Whenever I talked to her it left a bad taste in my mouth, and it’s hard to trust her now.

    Now I see (overly) sarcastic people as insecure wimps who can’t say genuine things and mean it, instead they hide behind the veil of sarcasm and say they are just being funny. Pathetic.

  8. Jan Marie Wall

    I agree with Ms. Edwards. Her experience with the person who made the ‘makeup’ comment was not meant to be helpful or kind in any way. It was a direct snipe at her. I feel that the way she came back with her comment about contacting the make-up artist was brilliant!!! Comments like this are not meant to make the recipient feel better or good about herself. They are meant as a low-ball snipe and probably out of jealousy. Why not say, “I saw you on CNN and enjoyed what you had to say” for example. Or………..if the sarcastic person has nothing good to say, then say nothing whatsoever. It goes back to basics and the Golden Rule!

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