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Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Sarcasm: Humor that Hurts

When I teach at Emory in the Department of Rehabilitative Medicine, my goal with the doctoral  students in physical therapy is to help them understand that communication is about being sensitive to the other person.  Attaining the necessary level of sensitivity for good communication involves not only tuning in to the other person but also knowing yourself well. 

Communication is learned at your family’s dinner table or in the family car when you were growing up.  Communication styles in families are imitated by the members.  In many families, sarcasm is a style of humor tolerated by the family members to the point that it feels harmless and “normal.”  If this were true in your family of origin, you may resort to sarcasm, thinking that it is just a way to be funny.

I tell my students that sarcasm is disrespectful and always involves a zinger against the other person.  They argue with me that sarcasm is harmless; that it’s expected in their family of origin; and that I must be mistaken.  I challenge them to give me any example of sarcasm that isn’t hurtful. 

They never can. 

They try and even at the end of the semester some remain unconvinced but there is no example of sarcasm or “teasing” as it is sometimes called in families that is not hurtful.

“Definition of SARCASM (from Merriam

: a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain
a : a mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual
: the use or language of sarcasm
 Sarcasm is from the  French or Late Latin; French sarcasme, from Late Latin sarcasmos, from Greek sarkasmos, from sarkazein to tear flesh, bite the lips in rage, sneer, from sark-, sarx flesh; probably akin to Avestan thwar╔Ös- to cut
First Known Use: 1550”

Since it’s been in use in the language since 1550, we can know that human beings have needed to zing and push away from each other for quite a long time. 

Sarcasm and teasing are used to get distance from the other person.  Zinging a person is a way of pushing them away from you.  A good question to ask yourself is why do you need to treat that person in such a way as to make them distanced from you?
Today in the school systems there is a focus on bullying and the harm that can come from that.  Bullying on the continuum of teasing behavior is teasing/sarcasm taken to the worst level.  If sarcasm is about poking another person using humor as the jab, bullying takes this to another level, shaming and putting another person down in the worst way one can.  Bullying involves controlling another person through the use of put-downs.

In its own way, sarcasm also involves controlling through put-downs.  If you use sarcasm and zing someone else with what you say, you control them by pushing them away.  In other words, you control the amount of connection you allow when you distance through sarcasm.

In the process of learning to be assertive, paying attention to the role sarcasm plays in your life is an important exercise.

Since I have written over and over again that assertiveness is about respect in relationships, any time I find myself feeling like making a sarcastic comment, I have to ask myself, what happened to the respect I have had for the other person.   I learn about myself in this exercise and usually can return to the respectful communication that I want to have with the people in my life.

In good assertive communication, respect is a constant and self-awareness is the foundation of maintaining that respect in the communication.

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