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.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #83

OK, that’s enough nerdiness about sarcasm.  Now, what to do when faced with it?

Response #1: Answer them literally.  Sarcasm is supposed to be a joke—a joke that covers contempt or jealousy, but a joke nonetheless. And what’s worse for the joker than having the joke fall flat?  

So when faced with, “That new boyfriend of yours is a real winner,” or “Mmmm, love this home cooking!” respond to the content, not the tone. Respond with the opposite of sarcasm: sincerity.  “Great, I’m so glad you like him—let’s all get together,” or “Awesome, how about seconds?”  When they’re forced to explain, “Well, actually, that’s not what I meant,” it gets awkward, but you’ve inoculated yourself against further attacks.

Response #2: Ignore them (and maybe throw some compassion their way). This works best for strangers who yell “Nice driving!” or the equivalent. Folks willing to put time and energy into putting down total strangers are pretty miserable and want you to feel as lousy as they do—feel some compassion for them and move on.

Response #3: Give some free advice. Sarcasm comes in different flavors. Some folks are sarcastic to make fun of an absurd world. They’re laughing with you, or even at themselves. That’s fine—leave them be.

But those who are laughing at you often honestly think they’re being funny. They don’t realize they leave a trail of hurt feelings, not to mention higher odds of divorce and greater chances of getting fired, in their wake.

If you care about someone with a habitually hostile wit, consider a gentle intervention:  “You have such a wickedly sharp sense of humor.  I know you don’t mean to be hurtful, but your sarcasm sometimes comes across as bitter and hostile, which I’m guessing is not your intention.”

If you’ve gotten this far without saying “Fascinating!  Tell me more,” then when I say “Thanks for listening,” know that it’s sincere.

*The answer?  Envy, golf, and beans have GREEN in common.


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Kantrowitz, JT et al.  (2014). The 5% difference: Early sensory processing predicts sarcasm perception in schizophrenia and schizo-affective disorder.  Psychological Medicine, 44, 25-36.

Miron-Spektor, E, et al (2011). Others' anger makes people work harder not smarter: The effect of observing anger and sarcasm on creative and analytic thinking. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96, 1065-1075.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

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