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How to Deal with Sarcastic People

Sarcastic people can be hilarious. But when their barbs are pointed at you, they can be annoying or even hurtful. Here's how to deal.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
Episode #083

Sarcasm is like jazz—you know it when you hear it. That’s because sarcasm is primarily communicated by tone of voice, which is used to mean the opposite of the literal words. You can tell by a speaker’s tone that, “Well, that’s exactly what I need right now,” means that’s exactly what’s not needed.

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Sarcasm can be used to compliment: “You majored in applied math? Slacker.” Or be self-deprecating: “What are you talking about? My ‘99 Geo Prizm gets all the ladies.” Or even to channel Beyonce: “I woke up like this.”

More often, though, sarcasm is used to demonstrate irritation or just to be plain old mean.

But for all the social mayhem they cause, sarcastic people actually employ some pretty advanced social cognition. Now, this does not mean sarcastic people are smarter, despite what some Internet articles might want you to believe. It simply means that the ability to use and understand sarcasm requires a skill called Theory of Mind, which is the ability to detect the mental states of others, including true feelings, thoughts, and intentions.

So even though what is said is the opposite of what is meant, the sarcastic individual intends the listener to detect the true meaning. If you don’t catch the meaning, you can’t respond appropriately. As a result, those with deficits in Theory of Mind, like individuals with schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, or autism, have a hard time understanding or using sarcasm.

Why does sarcasm require higher order social cognition? Simply put, it’s because the tone and content oppose each other. A sincere comment in a positive tone—“That is so original!”—or a critical comment in a negative tone—“That is so cliche"—are congruent. A sarcastic comment, however, is often a positive message with a negative tone, which is more complicated for the brain to process.

Why Do People Use Sarcasm?  

Fundamentally, sarcasm is a cover. It’s used to cover anger, envy, or inadequacy that, without the anti-sugarcoating of sarcasm, feels too forthright.

But it turns out covering up strong emotions with sarcasm can be useful.  A 2011 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology asked participants to listen to one of three versions of a customer complaining to his cell phone company about problems with reception and customer service. The three messages were equal in subject matter and length, but the presentation was either angry (“You make deliveries only between 9 am and 12 pm! This is an outrage!"), sarcastic (You make deliveries only between 9 am and 12 pm! Well, that’s just perfect for working people"), or neutral (“You make deliveries only between 9 am and 12 pm. I am at work during those hours.").

After listening to one of the messages, participants were asked to solve either a set of analytical problems or a set of creative problems. The analytic problems were simple, but required attention to detail, while the creative problems required participants to think outside the box and connect three seemingly unrelated words (for example: envy, golf, beans). (*Curious? Scroll to the end for the answer).

So what happened? Those who listened to the angry message saw their creative problem solving abilities hindered, but they kicked butt on the analytic task. In other words, they worked harder, but not smarter. Naked anger squelched any kind of creativity. By contrast, those who listened to the sarcastic message actually enhanced their creative problem solving.  

Why? The researchers posited that because anger is threatening, it automatically puts people on the defensive, which causes them to narrow their problem-solving to just the facts, ma’am, and become more detail-oriented and rigid.

By contrast, sarcasm, with its humor and figurative language, is less threatening. Plus it requires, according to the researchers, “more cognitive effort and complex thinking than understanding direct anger.” 

So next time you call customer service, your best bet is to be nice, and I never thought I’d recommend this, but if you can’t say something nice, at least say something sarcastic.

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