Inoculating yourself against sarcasm

Sharon, age 16, comes home from a date at  2 a.m. She and her mother agreed that she would be in at 11 p.m. Her mother is outraged: "I worried about you! Why didn't you call? You didn't even answer your cell phone. I was about to call the police." Sharon shoots her mother a sarcastic look and retorts: "Mom, you worry your little head too much. What do you think I was doing – drinking, snorting cocaine and having unprotected sex? Get some sleep mom. You get yourself all worked up over nothing."  Mom is tired and angry. She wonders if she is unreasonable with Sharon. After all, Sharon's sarcastic way of naming mom's worse fears implies that Sharon would never do such things.

But Sharon's sarcastic comments are highly purposeful. She is well aware of why she didn't call her mother. She had been drinking, snorting cocaine and having unprotected  sex.   So what does her use of sarcasm accomplish? It throws mom off the track. It induces a self-doubt in mom (e.g., maybe she's too hard on her daughter; maybe her daughter is making healthy choices).   Sharon uses sarcasm as a distracter to keep her mother off-guard and doubting herself.

Do you use sarcasm? Does someone use it with you? From your earliest childhood memories to your  current day adult experiences you've probably had many encounters with sarcasm…and you may have dished out your fair share of it over the years. None of us like being on the receiving end of it.  And why would we?  The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines sarcasm as "a bitter or wounding remark", "a taunt". It is derived from the Greek language, originally meaning tearing the flesh, gnashing the teeth or speaking bitterly.  Some of us handle it better than others. What are some reasons for using sarcasm? What can you do to protect yourself when you are the target of  sarcasm? Let's take a closer look at sarcasm using the following conversation between a husband and a wife.  As you read this, pretend you're the wife:

W: "Honey, I'd love to go back to school."
H (with sarcasm): "Should I buy you a backpack and some colored crayons." 
(His sarcasm is saying, "I'm choosing not to take you seriously. I hope you'll drop this subject".)
W: "No I mean it…. I'm bored. I want a career."
H (with sarcasm): "Good! Because then we'll be able to pay for your phone calls to your mother." 
(He attempts to distract her by indirectly expressing his  anger towards her frequent phone calls to her mother. He is attempting to shut her up by making her feel guilty.)
W: "You're not listening to me…I want a degree in business.  I saw a program that interests me."
H: "You! In the business world? Don't make me laugh!" 
(He attacks her as a person incapable of entering the business world.  Notice he doesn't give any reasons – just a hit and run attack.)
W: "Will you listen to me?  I want your permission to take two courses this fall. I'd enroll as a part-time student."
H: "Should I write a permission slip to the principal?" 
(He resorts to his first tactic, imaging her going back to school at the grade school level. He is using sarcasm to demean her while seeming to be a jovial jokester.)
W: "Oh…you make me so angry! You never listen! I hate you!"
H: "Boy, you never did have a sense of humor did you. Can't you take a joke!" 
(He tries to make her feel as though her outrage is proof that he's the funny guy and she's an out-of-control, stuffy woman.)

From the wife's point of view, what is happening?  She has made an important decision. She is no longer willing to live with her boredom and she wants a focused challenging  purpose. This is a major life decision. She wants her husband to listen attentively and supportively. She does not find his joking funny—she finds it maddening. Yet if she tells herself,  "Maybe I`m too  serious. Maybe he is just a light-hearted funny guy" then his sarcasm will have been effective. If she doesn't see the situation clearly and understand how sarcasm works, his sarcasm may cause her to doubt herself on multiple levels:

"Maybe he's the lighthearted jokester and I'm the serious one."
"Maybe it's foolish to consider going back to school - after all, that's what young kids do."
"Maybe I'm not cut out for business."
"Maybe I spend too much money on phone bills."
"Maybe I'm too close to my mother."
"Maybe I'm a mean wife, after all, I told him I `hated' him."

Notice what he accomplishes by his sarcasm. Unless she clearly identifies his methods and has the certainty that he is wrong, she will fall into the sarcasm trap. On one hand, she is furious with him for not taking her seriously. On the other hand, she feels guilty for having told him she "hated" him when he was "only joking".   What's the typical upshot?  She will toss up her hands and end up doubting herself. Maybe he's just a good guy and she just doesn't like his humor.

It's her self-doubt, her uncertainty about who is right and who is wrong in this situation, which has the power to undercut her. If she doesn't understand how sarcasm works, or how to handle it, what will be the likely outcome for her of his sarcastic behavior?  She may back off from her attempt to have an enjoyable interesting life. She may think: "Who am I to try to change the status quo at home.  I give up. What's the use…it'll cause too much trouble if I try to go back to school. He'll give me a hard time day in and day out.  I can't stand his teasing. I might as well just stay put. I'm bored. He doesn't  care. I feel so dependent on him…and so furious with him.  There must be something wrong with me."

What's the likelihood that they will have a romantic evening after their  conversation? Zero. My guess is that this is a long established pattern and that secretly, she hates him.  He certainly doesn't value her happiness.

Let's look at this situation from the husband's vantage point.  What does he "gain" by his sarcasm? His wife wants to become ambitious. He knows she's bored. He's bored with his life too but unmotivated to change. So why would her going back to school bother him? Perhaps he`s afraid that if she discovers a world outside of his domain he will have less control over her, she may become less available or she may have more ambition than he does and become more  successful. It's important to him that she doesn't make waves in his life. But then why doesn't he tell her his concerns openly? Why does he resort to sarcasm? Imagine that he told her the following: "Honey, I'm worried that I may have less control over you if you discover any outside interests.  You may discover that you are more competent than I have led you to believe. You may realize that we are not compatible,  that you are more ambitious than I am. I will feel pressure to re-examine my life and I don't want to have to do that. I don't want you to rock the boat. I can't say that I love the "boat" that we're both in …but at least it's a familiar boat."

Were he to speak directly and not hide behind the intimidating sarcasm, he would be admitting to: 

  • his own fear of ambition
  • his desire to throttle his wife's choice for achieving happiness
  • his desire to control her
  • his envy - he doesn't want her to succeed more than he has
  • his passive attitude toward his own life rather than wanting an exciting life.

Who has the courage to admit that openly?  Most people won't even admit that to themselves. Instead he shoots sarcastic barbs at her, which give him the illusion that he's a good guy who  simply teases his wife. He tells himself that she's obviously too sensitive, that she comes up with foolish ideas and that he knows what's right for both of them.
Sarcasm allows him to keep  the veneer of a good self-image while throttling his wife and evading his own bad character traits, his self-betrayals (e.g., his willingness to control others, his lack of ambition, his passivity, his envy). Sarcasm is used effectively here to avoid self-knowledge and to control anyone who threatens to expose that negative self-knowledge. How might she deal with his sarcasm?

When someone is sarcastic:

  1. Address the sarcasm openly: "Every time I bring up going back to school, you make fun of me. Help me understand why you do this?"
  2. State your concern: "I'm concerned that your sarcasm is putting a big wedge between us."
  3. Show him a contrast.  Demonstrate how you would like him to respond: "I would like it if you said to me `Honey, I know that this is a big step for you and I can see you're enthused. Tell me more about your plan…' "
  4. Encourage him to vent anger openly, not indirectly: "Honey, if you're upset about my calls to my mother, let's talk about that openly.  What bothers you most about them?"
  5. Let him know what you feel when he's sarcastic and how it revises how you feel about him, i.e., the cost to him of his sarcasm: "I feel put down when I hear your sarcasm. I feel frustrated and furious with you."
  6. Let him know how you plan to respond to him in the future: "When I hear your sarcasm in the future, I'll let you know that I'm uncomfortable with it and hopefully we can talk about your real concerns."

If you find these methods don't get through to him, it may be that there is no getting through to him. You might try couples therapy. If he is unwilling to talk, the alternative is not to give up your goals, but to give him up and pursue your goals. Don't let sarcasm  intimidate you out of having a wonderful life.