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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
5-minute read
Episode #83

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.

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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References

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.