Sarcasm: Is It Humor or Something Sinister?

I hate sarcasm. It’s rude, hurtful, and offensive. Yet I have met many people who insist that it is humorous. “Sarcasm can be funny, ” my friend John told me. “I beg to differ”, I replied. “There is nothing funny about saying something hurtful to another person.” “Yes, but…”, he continued, “you can make fun of them and as long as it’s done in good taste it’s not insulting.” We debated the issue for a few minutes and then put it to rest. Clearly, he was of the mindset that there was nothing wrong with sarcasm.

However, there are distinct disparities between the two. Look up both words in the dictionary: sarcasm comes from the Greek word “sarcazmos”, which literally means “to tear ones flesh”. That’s a pretty violent description. Other terms used to define sarcasm are “sharp, satirical utterances designed to cut or give pain; bitter, caustic language directed against an individual.” Tear, cut, pain, bitter, caustic: are any of these words indicative of humor?

The definition of humor, on the other hand, uses such terms as “funny quality; elicits amusement and laughter; designed to make others laugh, smile or chuckle.” Quite a contrast, don’t you agree?

Sarcasm is actually a form of passive/aggressive anger. It is designed to hurt the intended party, to embarrass or humiliate them, to make them feel uncomfortable. Covert and underhanded, it is used to disguise anger and alleviate any responsibility should the other party take personal offense. “I was just kidding! Everyone else laughed. You are just too sensitive.” Blame: an alternative for ownership of bad behavior.

Sarcasm reveals a lot about the person dishing it out. People who are kind, sensitive, respectful, thoughtful, and confident do not resort to such cowardly behavior. If they have something unflattering to say to the other person they do so in a direct and polite manner. Calling your child a nickname that they do not like and telling them they are too sensitive when they get angry with you is passive/aggressive. Making a joke about your husband’s balding head, knowing he is sensitive about his receding hairline, is hurtful. Calling your boss a “know-it-all” (“Well, how could you be wrong? You surely know everything there is to know about running this company!”) cannot be negated by a lame “I meant that in the most flattering way possible.”

Humor is truly lighthearted and careful not to offend the other party. My husband and I use humor with each other all the time. We can tease one another in a very playful manner, designed to make them laugh (like the time I left a pot of boiling water on the stove and forgot to add the rice, scorching and blistering my favorite saucepan). He knows I am not the least bit sensitive or embarrassed by my sheer stupidity and he has free reign to use it as an opportunity to make me and any other family member laugh.

Humor can alleviate stress, diffuse anger, relieve sadness, and bring people together. It releases endorphins, the feel-good chemical, in the brain and actually boosts the body’s natural immune system. There are never any underlying or sinister intentions behind the action and there is no pain or offense on the receiver’s end. Webster uses words like funny, playful, amusement, smile, and chuckle in defining true humor.

In discerning whether or not your teasing is actual humor or sarcasm, check your motives and intent. Are you truly being playful or on some level do you hope that the dig you are throwing at the other party hurts? Motive and intent are key.

There is one exception to using humor that I must caution you about: never ever use vitreous humor. It can be very dangerous and do some serious damage. Oh wait – isn’t that the gel that fills the space between the lens and retina of the eye? Ok, never mind. It’s safe. (That’s a little humor – did I make you laugh? No? Too little wit, I’m guessing. So sue me. I’ll take it to the Court of A(banana)peels.) 🙂

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