Humor Mixed with Venom: The Light and Dark of Sarcasm


October is National Sarcastic Awareness Month.

Many people who enjoy sarcasm are quick to point out that it can be hilarious and is not always used to cut people off at the knees.

However, a cursory Internet search on sarcasm suggests there are more sarcasm detractors than promoters.

Sarcasm: Be Aware and Beware

Maybe the original intention of sarcasm awareness was to encourage us to stop spewing venom at our fellow human beings, no matter how deliciously funny. Whatever the purpose, sarcasm is psychologically interesting because using it – or understanding that you have been the target of it – requires a well-developed social intelligence. It seems those who are sensitive to sarcasm are also skilled at sensing others' attitudes and intentions.

For example, a woman named Jeanie is in a grocery store pushing a cart that contains produce, assorted canned goods, eggs and a bag of chips. An acquaintance from Jeanie’s office, also pushing a shopping cart, comes into her aisle, waves and says, “Hey Jeanie, whatcha doing here?”

Jeanie tries to bite her tongue but replies, “I’m tracking a rhinoceros.” Jeanie knows her comment is sarcastic, that it is mocking and shows contempt for the other person’s obviously unnecessary question, but she cannot resist making the remark.

If the acquaintance is someone Jeanie routinely jokes around with at work, the sarcasm might provoke laughter and a humorous exchange of words. Should the acquaintance be a person Jeanie rarely talks to, her sarcastic remark will likely hurt this individual who was just trying to be friendly. There is also a possibility that the coworker will feel uncomfortable by Jeanie’s comment but not quite understand why.

Research on Sarcasm and Empathy

Recent research with children has linked the recognition of sarcasm with an individual’s ability to empathize. Sarcasm and empathy seem an odd couple until you consider that awareness of sarcasm requires seeing the sarcastic person's point of view and the intention behind his or her words.

Study results showed that children 8 and 9 years of age with advanced empathy skills were twice as accurate in detecting sarcasm as those with less developed empathy. “Even when children did not recognize a remark as sarcastic, there was evidence in the reactions that the children with stronger empathy skills were sensitive to the speaker’s intent,” said researcher Penny Pexman.

If there is any use for National Sarcasm Awareness Month, it may be to remind fans of sarcasm to use it sparingly as to avoid regret. Sarcasm is a skill with ties to social intelligence and empathy, which seems to give it credibility but really suggests that we would be wise to engage our empathy and social intelligence before launching a sarcastic zinger.

Sources: Science Daily, Sarcasm Society


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