In my most recent post for Psychology Today, I shared a story about the value of humor in creating safe language to change your team for the better. I’m a big fan of humor and its value in helping us talk about things that are too difficult to hit head on. I should have been explicit that sarcasm does not belong on the list of approved humor techniques.
The Free Online Dictionary defines sarcasm as “a form of wit that is marked by the use of sarcastic language and is intended to make its victim the butt of contempt or ridicule.” That pretty much sums it up. If your humor has a victim and is intended to ridicule them, you should probably stop.
Typical example: The team is struggling to come up with the new product strategy for the next line of commercial products. Xiang makes a suggestion that the team conduct a customer event. Before she can finish her rationale, Jake responds with “yeah, right…awesome idea. We’ll bring all our most important customers together and tell them NOTHING (which is about all we have as a strategy right now) and then we’ll get them to sign up for our imaginary product, and maybe we should even ask them to pay in advance. Yup, I’m in! Sign me up.”
Your intent when you use sarcasm
I find sarcasm is often the playground of very smart, seemingly confident team members. When I ask about their intent in using sarcasm, they cite rationale such as…
“I wanted to lighten things up”
“They were missing the point”
“I was getting frustrated…how could anyone stand to listen to that drivel?”
Impact #1: The truth is lost. In most cases, there is a nugget of truth you have wrapped in sarcasm. That truth is often lost because you draw attention to the inadequacy of others’ comments instead of the intelligence of yours. The minute you trigger self-consciousness, embarrassment, or anger in your teammates, you have pretty much guaranteed that they won’t hear the important point you were trying to make.
Impact #2: The tone goes south. Sarcasm is supposed to be funny, but it lands like a ton of bricks. Instead of lightening the tone in room, it usually makes it adversarial or introduces a hierarchy of supposedly superior and inferior contributors. It evokes old schoolground bullying patterns that will cause some teammates to stand and fight and others to high tail it out of the conversation.
Impact #3: You look weak. Another important consideration: although sarcasm looks like a sign of strength to the uninitiated, it is more likely to be a sign of insecurity. If your point is valid and you have the guts, you would address the issue directly. Instead, you take the easy way out by coming at the issue indirectly.
So, as you can see, sarcasm is an AWESOME idea and you should use it as MUCH as possible. It will make you SO much fun to be around. Or not.