Does sarcasm work at the office?
There have been numerous mentions in the press and social media recently about using sarcasm to argue a point.
Let’s look at sarcasm from a communication standpoint (not a political one!), and consider whether it’s an effective way to connect with people in business.
First of all, what is sarcasm?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, sarcasm is “the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say especially in order to insult someone, to show irritation, or to be funny.”
The Cambridge dictionary has a similar definition: “remarks that mean the opposite of what they say, made to criticize something or someone in a way that is amusing to others but annoying to the person criticized.”
Adopting the first part of the definition – using sarcasm to insult someone – is not okay in the business world (or elsewhere). To use sarcasm to insult another person is rude and mean-spirited, and reflects poorly on the speaker. If you have difficulty with someone, be direct and confront that person on the issue. You want to build relationships with the people you work with and others in your network. Sarcasm can destroy those relationships.
Using sarcasm to be funny can be tricky. Oscar Wilde said, “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence.” A good example would be a quote long attributed to Mark Twain: “I refused to attend his funeral. But I wrote a very nice letter explaining that I approved of it.”
Very few of us have such literary talents. For the rest of us, it is easy for our sarcasm to become hurtful or tactless.
As author Shannon L. Alder said, “If you have to explain your sense of humor, then you are performing for the wrong crowd.”
I admit, you can sometimes pull off sarcasm if you have a good relationship with your target. An example of this would be the exchange I saw on a poster: “Mom, what is it like to have the greatest daughter in the world?” The mom replies, “I don’t know, dear. You’ll have to ask Grandma.”
I have used sarcasm successfully with my husband. But when I was sarcastic in a seminar, it fell flat. The participants didn’t know me well enough to get the intended humor.
Bottom line, it is generally best to avoid sarcasm.
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