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 shows that teasers usually believe their words are less hurtful than their victim thinks.

Sarcasm Definition: “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?


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

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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