Women holding a card that reads 'Really?'

Why Does Sarcasm Hurt?

Sarcasm is a double-layered expression — of playfulness, passive-aggressiveness, or awkwardness — which on the surface indicates that the person’s acts and statements are neutral, but the second layer beneath the surface signifies aggression. Sarcasm is passive-aggressive by definition.

And not everyone can always detect the subtle irony at play. Only a few individuals can handle sarcasm with grace, notes Dr Leon F Seltzer over at PsychologyToday. Others could feel uncomfortable at best and devastating at worst

For those interested in the etymology, the word sarcasm comes from a Greek word ‘sarkasmós’ or ‘to tear the flesh’ — suggesting offensive overtones. When it doesn’t land (or isn’t intended for it) it’s not humor, it’s hostility that can upset people. When they receive negative input, it inspires contempt, anger and even aggression.

Why People Use Sarcasm

While more often than not, people can appreciate, or at least tolerate sarcasm, but if it pushes your buttons, it won’t be a stretch to imagine a thinly-veiled taunt escalating into unpleasantries. Could it stem from a latent fear of judgement or ridicule?

Let’s say if a person is exceedingly self-conscious about either the size or shape of their nose and someone takes a sarcastic jab at its form. There’s a distinct possibility that it’s offensive to the recipient — even when they don’t acknowledge it out loud, this interaction can put them on the defense.

That being said, sarcasm isn’t always mean-spirited when it’s conveyed and received well. When not taken at its face value, sarcasm can lighten up the mood and soften the blow when offering feedback. But in the paragraphs that follow, explore the more ‘barbed’ mode of this irony.

The Science Behind It

You probably come across it often in your life — perhaps from your partner, your coworker, your boss, a friend, or a parent, someone who can’t get enough sarcastic, passive-aggressive, and often impolite communication. While they might not intend it, research in psychology suggests that it can be more disruptive, or even biting when misused.

Surprisingly enough, a snide remark, or a ‘yeah, right’ can provide insight into how our minds operate. Researchers who study these subtle intricacies — be it in a psychological, neurological, or a linguistic context — have discovered that when exposed to sarcasm, subjects demonstrate sharper, more creative problem-solving.

The so-called ‘theory of mind’ suggests that sarcasm engages more brain activity than sincere commentary does, giving your mind a ‘jog’, sort of. But as touched on above, sarcasm can be a double-edged sword. And the science behind it can be a guide to the ‘why’.

When faced with sarcasm delivered in a condescending, snobby, and curt manner, it can be more biting than brutal criticism, according to a study. If you’re on the receiving end, it can hurt your feelings — especially if you’re sensitive to it or appreciate genuine expression more.

Sarcasm and Relationships

Oscar Wilde writes, “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence”, but intelligent or not; it shouldn’t be the primary medium for communication because there’s always the possibility of it being misconstrued.

Something which can lead to hostility, embarrassment, or discomfort will certainly strain, or outright threaten the relationships we build. When not willing to confront, partners can cloak insults with it, use it incessantly to the point where valid concerns are written off as jokes, or stick to a sarcastic pattern that doesn’t leave any room for vulnerability or trust-building.

It doesn’t just cloud communication; sarcasm can also be a tool for shaming. If your partner feels embarrassed at an insincere snipe, the ridicule came from a place of malice, not good-natured humor. It’ll promote self-doubt, sow the seeds of insecurity that grows into conflict — hurt your relationship and intimacy more than sticks and stones.

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Sarcasm and Parenting

It’s also crucial to learn what makes criticism different from feedback — unlike understandable criticism, feedback is intended to build you up, rather than put you down. Instead of suggesting something could be wrong with your actions, they’d tell you something is wrong with you. But more importantly, feedback offers solutions, rather than controlling your decision.

Note that, once again, sarcasm can be used to cushion the blow, be it feedback or criticism. But when it’s criticism, the sarcasm (much like their criticism) comes from insecurity and the need to feel better about themselves.

Children are not just impressionable; they’re also susceptible to criticism (and even more so when it’s disguised in sarcasm). GoodTherapy says that children who grow up with harsh criticism from parents tend to become sensitive to it. Without positive reinforcement, it becomes increasingly challenging to take disapproval healthily.

When chastised with ‘Your room looks immaculate’, or ‘Your grades keep climbing, good job’, it can leave an emotional scar on the child, keeping them from growing.

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Here’s How You Can Better Handle Sarcasm

When it’s designed to, sarcasm can hurt. There is no denying in it. That’s why being able to identify it for what it is, and then learning how to handle it with grace, can be a useful life skill.

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Be Assertive

Some people are critical by nature and do not always realise when they are hurting someone’s feelings. Of all the ways to deal with sarcasm, you’d find being assertive to be helpful.

Assertive behavior is key to a healthy response to biting sarcasm. While letting it slide on occasion can be an excellent diplomatic approach, make sure you aren’t passive when someone’s harsh words do hurt you — even more so when they matter to you.

Don’t Feed the Troll

The adage ‘Don’t feed the troll’ can be another guide to countering sarcasm. When they’re trying to put you down, they might be seeking validation for themselves. If you deny them the satisfaction, you can tackle their jabs with grace — invalidating them in the process. Silence to a jerk is always a million-dollar answer.

Be Sarcastic

But when do you feel the need to retort, fighting fire with fire may come in handy. If your response is sarcastic too, it can be a great way to de-escalate, or even defuse the tension — changing the dynamic of the conversation along the way. However, it might take a while to craft the comeback if you don’t often find yourself being sarcastic.

Closing Thoughts

Sarcasm is an art — the beloved character, Chandler Bing from the TV Show Friends comes to mind. We explored why sarcasm can be rude and bitter, but that’s not all there is to it. When used correctly, it can help you tackle and give good feedback, hone your problem solving, and allow you to be more creative. Just be mindful of its potential for damage.