I love skiing. I’ve had the opportunity to go quite a few times and have seen the slopes at their busiest. One day, when my friend and I were going through the rental system, the place was just the opposite–it was practically dead. As the woman handed us our skis, my friend stated sarcastically, “Wow, it’s really bustling here!”
The employee’s response made my friend and me want to laugh. “No!” She exclaimed passionately–perhaps with a tad bit of annoyance–“You should see what it’s normally like. We aren’t busy at all right now!” As soon as we both stepped outside we chuckled at the fact that the sarcasm hadn’t been picked up on and, thereby, how stupid we must’ve looked to the employee.
Sarcasm has a bad rap. It can be seen as disrespectful, and has been stereotypically assigned to the rude teen who rolls his eyes at his parents and responds in some snarky way to some wisdom they offer. For the record, I am not condoning this sort of behavior. I believe that–especially those of us who call ourselves Christians–should always, always portray respect, even when you don’t necessarily admire the other person. Just like every other aspect of communication, sarcasm is a tool and needs to be used responsibly. That being said, in the right circumstances and used appropriately, I think that sarcasm is a creative way to engage with communication. I feel that understanding what sarcasm is and why we use it can help to present sarcasm in a friendlier perspective and admire it when it it’s worth being admired.
Why do we college kiddos enjoy using sarcasm? For inspiration on how to address this question, I turn back to my favorite communication expert: Deborah Tannen. The first thing Tannen brings up is how humans like to challenge themselves. We like to create more and more elaborate skills, inventions, and ideas. Life gets more exciting when we embellish what would otherwise be the same old, same old. We do this in communication too. When skiing, the emptiness of the rental building was so pronounced that my friend wanted to say something. But why state the obvious, boring fact: “this place is kind of empty”?
So we use sarcasm to add a little style to the statement. It gives communicators a bit of a challenge and adds interest. Tannen explains it metaphorically, saying, “The speaker feels clever for having pitched a curve ball, the hearer for having caught it” (p. 71).* If sarcasm can be pulled off like this, the game is well worth the effort. Of course, there are times, like my example, where the trick isn’t pulled off so cleanly. “But if the curve is not caught–if it hits someone in the head or flies out of the ball park–no one is happy. The communication ball game is temporarily brought to a halt” (p. 71).*
Recognizing that sarcasm can be taken the wrong way, I would encourage responsible and thoughtful use of this form of communication. But, when used appropriately, I believe we can have a greater appreciation for sarcasm by understanding some of the nuts and bolts of it. When you use or hear sarcasm, admire the puzzles we can make out of every day communication. Recognizing what is behind sarcasm can make it that much more interesting to those of us who use it (and perhaps that much more understandable for those of us who don’t).
What are your experiences with sarcasm? You readers from the younger generations, when do you use sarcasm? Do you appreciate it or find it too dry? I’d love to hear any thoughts.
I’d also be especially interested in hearing from those of you who are past the college-age audience that I typically write to. Could you see yourself admiring sarcasm or do you view it as always disrespectful? When is sarcasm appropriate and when isn’t it?
I don’t feel like this topic is addressed very often and would be happy to write a sequel if I receive enough thoughts from you readers 🙂
*Tannen, D. (1986). That’s not what I meant: How conversational style makes or breaks relationships. New York, NY; Harper