A friend whose husband is a plumber was in my kitchen helping me to get food ready for a big event. The job at hand was to peel lots of potatoes. I noted that I learned the hard way not to put volumes of potato peels down the garbage disposal, since the starch turns them into mushy glue that clogs the drain. She replied, “My husband IS a plumber.” Silence.
My next comment was that we wanted to cover the peeled potatoes with water to keep them from turning brown, and was thinking about getting a bowl to put them in, slowly saying, “the water is…” and she quickly jumped with, “IN THE FAUCET”. Really?!? – was that necessary to be said??? – like I wasn’t aware of where the water was located! Two bouts of sarcasm within the first 5 minutes and I knew I was in for a long afternoon.
Why are people sarcastic? What does it achieve? What harm does it do? Sarcasm is a verbal bad habit that people pick up and maintain because it sometimes gets a laugh. But it’s a laugh at someone else’s expense – laughing at them, not with them. Sarcasm serves no useful purpose, except a lame attempt to show that the sarcastic person is smarter, cleverer, and wittier than the other person, done in a mean way.
What sarcasm does do is it makes the other person feel stupid (water is in the faucet – you’re an idiot not to know this basic fact) or to make them feel that they are being rude by not recognizing the other person’s superior knowledge (of course I know more than you do about plumbing, after all my husband is a PLUMBER). In any case, the message always has a negative connotation for the receiver.
When the person receiving the sarcasm is an adolescent, there is a danger to the relationship and to the child’s psyche, especially when the sarcasm is frequent and habitual. “Of course, YOU would know all about the subject, since you’re such a GENIUS” where the meta-message is interpreted to be, “You’re really an idiot” Not an avenue to building self-esteem.
The response to sarcasm is usually sarcasm back to the sender, or harbored resentful feelings, because sarcasm can really hurt. No one wants to be made to feel stupid or inferior – it’s not funny to be the victim of sarcasm. But the sarcastic sender gets a chuckle from the onlookers, and so the habit is positively reinforced. When the sender is a parent and the receiver is their child, the child learns their own retorts in defense and can unfortunately pick up the sarcastic habit themselves to inflict on others.
COMMUNICATION TAKEAWAY: Sometimes it takes real effort to quell a sarcastic comment when you feel it coming, since it can feel good to be right or clever – but at the expense of a child’s ego is not worth the price. There is no gain to sarcasm; it’s just a bad habit, in different degrees with different people, that serves no positive purpose. With developing children sarcasm can do real damage, unintentional, but no less real. This is a habit worth recognizing and losing.