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SALT LAKE CITY — In this edition of LIFEadvice, Coach Kim answers a question about sarcasm and whether it is damaging to relationships.
My wife says that my sarcasm and sarcastic comments hurt her and my children, while I think they need to lighten up and understand teasing. Sarcasm has always seemed intelligent humor in my family and I think she is being too sensitive. Since we both read your articles we wondered what you would say about it.
Most sarcastic people consider themselves both intelligent and funny, but I am sorry to say I agree with your wife that it can often be mean. This is because sarcastic comments, though humorous, are usually passive-aggressive, mean and uncomfortable for the people receiving them.
The dictionary defines sarcasm as "the use of irony to mock or convey contempt" and "a sharply ironical taunt; sneering or cutting remark." Neither of these definitions sound like validating communication to me.
You might see your sarcastic comments as teasing, but you must stop and think about how those comments really feel to the people in your life. Don’t think that by saying "just kidding" after a sarcastic remark it is now OK, especially if it was a hurtful comment. Most sarcastic people do see themselves as funny, but often they are the only ones laughing.
As a human behavior expert, I find it is always helpful to figure out why you are behaving the way you are. There are always reasons, beliefs or programs driving our behavior. When you understand why you feel the need to be sarcastic, you can then decide if it is really working for you.
Reasons for sarcasm
Here are some common reasons you might be sarcastic:
1. You fear you aren’t good enough, so you subconsciously put others down so you can feel superior.
The worse you feel about yourself, the more stinging your remarks toward others could be. People who don’t like themselves often put others down or tease them, in order to feel more important themselves. If this is your reason for being sarcastic, you may need some professional coaching or counseling to work on your self-esteem.
2. Sarcasm is also a way of asking for what you want when you are scared to ask for it directly.
You might crack a joke about your wife’s crazy shoes because you don’t know how to just say you don’t like them and wish she wouldn’t wear them. Instead, your sarcastic remark leaves your wife questioning what you really think. Were you joking or serious? When you don’t know how to say things in a kind way, you might make a joke, which probably hurts the other person, but it also creates a place where if she takes offense, it’s her problem, not yours. If you do this, you might need to learn some better communication skills.
3. Sarcasm can be passive-aggressive anger.
This happens when you feel taken from, insulted or annoyed by another person and you really want to get them back but know you can’t do that directly. Sarcasm is a way to take a stab at them without being seen as mean or bad. A joke feels like it absolves you of responsibility for their feelings. If this is your problem, you need to resolve the issue you are angry about. This passive-aggressive behavior actually makes you look bad too.
4. You may feel angry at life for the disappointments or abuse you have suffered.
Sarcasm can be a way to take out your anger about disappointments or vent your frustration. The more your life goes wrong, the more biting your remarks toward others could get. If this is your problem, you need to change the way you see your life experiences so they make you better, not bitter.
5. If you were made to feel small as a child, you may be trying to feel superior now.
If you were teased in a cruel way, put down, or made to feel small or unimportant as a child, you may be subconsciously trying to feel superior now. You may look down on other people and jokingly jab at them as a way to feel powerful. Again, if this is your problem, you may need to improve your self-esteem so you can show up with more love.
6. You might like to get attention by entertaining those around you with humor.
If this is true, you probably need this attention to validate your worth because, again, you might have low self-esteem. You might need attention so badly you will sacrifice other people to get it. Fear creates very selfish subconscious behavior, but this can be fixed. There are lots of ways to be funny without hurting other people.
How to be less sarcastic
Just take a minute and honestly ask yourself if any of these reasons or problems could be behind your need to be sarcastic. Then, ask yourself the following questions:
- What are you trying to accomplish with your communication?
- What kind of relationships do you want with the people in your life? Do you want them to feel safe with you and to talk with you? Do you care?
- Is humor worth it if it is at the expense of others’ feelings?
- Do you want to build relationships of trust and love, or are you only interested in entertaining yourself?
You may need to practice "THINK before you speak," a technique to check yourself before you say anything. Stop (before you open your mouth) and ask yourself "Is what I am about to say true? Helpful? Inspiring? Necessary? Kind?" — one word for each letter in the word THINK.
You can be funny all you want; but if you do it at the expense of other people, there will be consequences. People may never feel safe with you. People may start to dislike you. If the people on the receiving end of your sarcasm are your friends and family, the cost for your humor may be high.
How do deal with a sarcastic person
If you are living with a sarcastic person here are a few suggestions for dealing with it:
- Work on getting rock-solid self-esteem yourself.
- Either ignore mean comments, giving them no attention at all, or call them out and ask the sarcastic person if they meant their comment to be as mean as it sounded.
- Treat every sarcastic remark as literal. Not seeing the joke will take the fun out of it, and their comment will just look mean. Ask if their comment was meant to make you feel small, or make them look clever or funny.
- Talk about it. Have a mutually validating conversation and ask if they are open to hearing how their sarcastic comments make you feel? Would they be willing to cut the sarcasm in favor of a better relationship?
Your wife is telling you that your comments are damaging your relationships; that should be enough to make you seriously look at your communication style and decide what kind of relationships you want to have.
I realize if you grew up in a sarcastic family, your programming for this teasing runs deep. You are going to have to stay committed to working on this to make this change but keep at it. It’s worth it.
You can do this.
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