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You’re standing in a group, talking, and one of the members starts shooting verbal “zingers” at you. Everybody seems to get a hearty laugh at your expense. That is, everybody but you.

Light (and not-so-light) insult humor has become almost a national pastime. When you’re the butt of the jokes, the sarcasm, you may try to shrug it off as harmless, but it stings. And if you’re the one getting laughs at others’ expense, you may not realize what you’re revealing about yourself.

Let’s shed some light and insight to this common workplace, family and social group experience.

Verbal Abuse is Not Funny
Over the years, I’ve been engaged (formally and informally) in workplace coaching with teams and groups, and working with couples. Some of these groups, teams and couples were relatively new while others have been” intact” for quite some time. Individuals represented the spectrum of “types” that might be included in the myriad descriptions of the MBTI or DiSC-type assessments or profiles. So, nothing unusual in the participant makeup.

However, across teams, groups and couples, I was often struck by one behavior that stood out above all others, namely, the propensity for many of these individuals to consistently engage in making destructive, cutting, sarcastic remarks to and about others (“the other,” in the case of couples).

Destructive or sarcastic comments – personal or professional – are those which are hurtful, demeaning, sarcastic and verbally abusive.

What You Say Matters
The comments I experienced were directed at others’ physical characteristics (hair, clothes…), perspectives or ideas, or life choices (e.g., others’ choices of restaurants, movies, books, sports or sports teams, or others’ hobbies or interests, relatives, past educational or professional experiences…), or folks’ current performance.

These were not simply run-of-the-mill light comments. There was an underlying anger, resentment, hostility or destructive element wrapped inside. By the way, the word sarcasm comes from the Greek word “sarkazein,” which literally means “to tear or strip the flesh off.”  It’s no wonder sarcasm hurts..

On more than one occasion, I had to do an internal, invisible “double-take,” and ask myself, “Did I really hear that?” “Did he really say that?” “Did she really throw that zinger at him?”

What continually came to me was “Why? What is this all about?”

In Western culture, the biting, sarcastic, demeaning put-down has become an art form, everywhere – TV, movies, talk radio, sports events, journals and magazines, and, of course, in online, social media interactions. It’s part of the fabric of everyday conversation. And more, many folks today see such behavior as “business as usual,” or as “no big deal.”

In fact, when I asked some of these folks if they were aware of what they said, most responded, “No.” or “So, what?” Like I had three heads or came from another planet. For many of these folks, their sarcastic behavior is a true “blind spot.”

There’s Always A Reason
So, let’s return to the question, “Why?”. In my experience, in the realm of psychology and psychodynamics, we understand most folks engage in put-downs, sarcasm and barbs as a way to look smart, witty and cool. The difference is that being truly smart, witty and cool, does not include hostility. Sarcasm does, intentionally or unintentionally. Being “entertaining” does not include hostility — notwithstanding the “humor” of Robin Williams and other comedians – many of whom were/are suffering from their own mental/psychosocial issues that fed their (sarcastic and put-down) humor.

Dr. John Grohol, the founder and Editor-in-Chief of PsychCentral, says, “Sarcasm is simply saying something intended in a mean-spirited, derogatory or unpleasant manner while meaning the exact opposite. Most people who use sarcasm expect that the recipient of the sarcastic message to recognize the contradiction.” That is, I’m being hurtful but the humor is worth it. Hmmm.

That’s the upside (read, excuse) for them. The downside is that the person for whom the comment is directed is often harmed, hurt, demeaned, or otherwise made the point of ridicule.

When I ask other group participants, or partner/spouse, – i.e., the bystanders – why they often react with laughter, or with some flavor of “atta boy” comment, they generally say they something like, “I don’t know; I just do. It was funny.” Or some such cover for their underling hurt or pain.

The truth is many react this way in a “go along to get along,” colluding, fashion because they don’t want to stand out as different, serious, politically correct, spiritual, or cause anyone to get upset by saying how they really feel, etc. They want and need to be “one of the boys” or “the good, dutiful, loving spouse/partner.” So speaking up or out, or pushing back against such comments and behavior, will only serve to get them ostracized or rejected. So, they laugh or jump into the banter, make the best of a verbal gang rape or spousal abusive situation.

The deal is, no matter how sharp one is, how educated, how senior in the hierarchy one is, how wealthy one is, how witty one is, no one has the right to strive to look witty, sharp or cool at the expense of another human being, at the expense of being disrespectful or hostile to another human being.

And, for those who have a need to do so, the underlying question is, “Why? What does it get you? Does it make any difference that you might be hurting someone else?”

Jen Kim, tells this anecdote in Psychology Today, “…A few months ago, my friend and I visited a Buddhist temple, which serves really amazing vegetarian food. I was really hungry and thought, What the hell! Let’s stay for the service! The monk spoke about being a good person and living a good life, bobloblaw… and then ended the lesson with, “Sarcasm will prevent you from reaching enlightenment.”

Freud says humor, and jokes, are ways we reveal our conscious and unconscious intentions and feelings. He points out that humor often is a cover for our anger, envy and aggression. As David Ley, Clinical Psychologist, says, “…Our words matter. When we allow them to spill out, without thought or consideration, they reveal our unspoken intents and feelings. When those intentions and motivations are harmful, or threatening, it’s part of being an adult, that we “own” those words and the feelings they revealed. And, we own and acknowledge the consequences of those words.”

Sarcasm is wrong. Pure and simple.

No mater how witty you think you are!

Some questions for self-reflection:

  • Can you think of a time recently when you made a sarcastic or demeaning remark to a teammate, colleague, co-worker, husband, wife, partner, or children “for the fun it?”
  • Can you remember a time when you were the recipient of another’s sarcastic comments? How was that for you? Be honest.
  • If you have a reputation for being witty or sharp because you are a master of sarcasm, how does that make you feel?
  • Would you ever ask the objects of your sarcasm how they feel?
  • What does sarcasm get you, personally?
  • Do you think others really respect you, or just go along to get along, when they respond in a laughing sense to you sarcasm?
  • Did you ever tell a colleague or friend to stop using you as a target for their destructive words? How so?
  • Did you ever want to, but not speak up, when experiencing another’s sarcasm? Why?
  • Who would you be if sarcasm were not part of your personality? Would you lose some or much of your identity? How so?
  • Do you use a “just joking” defense when someone calls you on your sarcasm?

(c) 2020, Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D. and True North Partnering. All rights in all media reserved.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this reading with you and I hope you find it insightful and useful. Perhaps you’ll share this with others, post it on a bulletin board, and use it to generate rich and rewarding discussion.

What is the one thing that is keeping you from feeling successful, happy, confident, in control or at peace as you live your life – at work, at home, at play or in relationship? Maybe you know what that “thing” is…maybe you don’t. You just have a feeling that something has to change, whether or not you embrace that change. And how would that change support you to show up as a “better you?”

I’m available to guide you to create relationships that reflect honesty, integrity, authenticity, trust, and respect whether at work or outside of work. I support you to focus on the interpersonal skills that enable you to relate to others with a high level of personal and professional satisfaction – unhampered by personal inconsistencies, beliefs, “stories,” and behaviors that create barriers to a harmonious, pleasant, conscious, compatible, healthy and productive relationship.

I coach by phone, Skype and in person. For more information, 770-804-9125, www.truenorthpartnering.com or pvajda(at)truenorthpartnering.com

You can also follow me on Twitter: @petergvajda.

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