Why sarcasm is hurtful while irony sparks connections
Imagine a workshop scenario with an experienced manager, a group of newcomers, and an intern. The experienced supervisor has conceited manners, and his behavior borders on narcissism. At the end of the explanation of the assignment, he dismisses the group. Then the intern asks a question, unrelated to his task.
“I have neither time nor pencils enough, to explain this to you” is the cutting reply by the laughing manager. The manager’s response hit the intern like a pie in the face — unexpected, uncomfortable, and definitely not delicious. Someone hints at a smile, but the majority of the group feels embarrassed. What they have just experienced is pure sarcasm.
As usual, looking at the etymology of this word will help us to understand why sarcasm is so annoying. The word sarcasm derives from the Ancient Greek verb sarkazein meaning literally: “to strip off the flesh.”
The modern sense of sarcasm meaning a cutting remark or bitter taunt, likely evolved from these earlier, more violent meanings. The idea is that a sarcastic comment cuts or tears into the person it’s directed at. So the history of the word sarcasm mirrors the biting, hurtful nature of sarcasm itself. ^1
Returning to our workshop scene, I regret to say that it was a real incident I witnessed. The sentence about time and pencils wasn’t funny at all, despite the manager’s cold laugh, and the young intern who was assaulted by these bitter words thought that bridging the gap with his teammates was impossible. Even worse, he felt cut out of the job, with no contribution to bring. In one sentence the mood of the whole team had been destroyed.
How would an ironic person inform the intern, that the topic he was asking about was too boring and needed a time-consuming detailed analysis? Probably the best ironic answer might have been something like: “Well, you are asking something too interesting and too easy to deal with today, I’d love to reward you for your task by discussing this topic with you, tomorrow. I’m sure you’ll love it.”
Indeed, the etymology of irony is nicer and not cruel. Also the word irony comes from the Ancient Greek eirōneia which means dissimulation. The irony was the rhetorical form used in the Ancient Greek comedy, by characters who said the exact opposite of what they meant. The irony, indeed, is the ability to highlight the absurdity of a situation by depicting it as its opposite …Isn’t this post so interesting? (Ops!)
What fascinates me about the word irony is that it seems to be the nickname of iron, despite these two words having no common root. But I love to think of irony as the characteristic of very strong people. Have you ever thought that ironic people are stronger and smarter than others?
In fact, studies about irony show a link between the use of humor and the intelligence quotient. In particular, a study titled: “Irony as a means of perception through communication channels. Emotions, attitude, and IQ related to irony across gender” found that ironic remarks were related to performance intelligence quotient. ^2
Another article published in The Guardian explored the reactions of three groups of people. All of them had to read some comic strips, and the result was that the group with the highest appreciation of the cartoons scored the highest in verbal and non-verbal IQ tests. Besides, they were better educated. But what strikes me the most, is that they were less aggressive and they had a better mood. ^3
So, if irony is a sign of a smart brain and a non-aggressive character, may we think of sarcasm as its opposite face? Yes, it’s possible to link the continuous use of sarcasm to more insecure behavior and a more standard IQ.
In a study published by Psychology Today, it’s clearly said that: “After all, when you come right down to it, sarcasm can be used as a subtle form of bullying — and most bullies are angry, insecure, or cowardly.” ^4
In conclusion, various studies connect the understanding and use of irony and sarcasm to intelligence, suggesting that these forms of communication require a good level of cognitive ability. But the irony is certainly more empathetic and creates a nice moment of relationship between those who can understand and appreciate it, regardless of topic. (In Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest, Algernon declares to his father: “I love talking about nothing, father. It is the only thing I know anything about.” But maybe this is too much regardless of topic).
Sarcasm, on the contrary, builds a wall that stops any form of polite communication. (Oh, please enlighten us with your vast knowledge on this subject. We’re sure you’re an expert.)
Besides, the irony is choral music; it’s the ability to lose tensions and share a moment of relaxed exchange. An ironic comment is appreciated by all those who listen to it, as it can be self-directed, or a general note about a public situation. Sarcasm is always directed at someone in particular, with the blatant intention of hurting, possibly in front of a submissive audience.
As in our example of the sarcastic manager, do you think that his Company will appoint him to lead another workshop? Maybe not. Everyone needs a mentor who cares for them, who feeds self-esteem, and who can share information. More important, everyone needs to relate with people who share values. What I’ve learned in my life, is that you can’t rely on sarcastic people, as they only spread bitter comments that leave us questioning our own existence.
As one of my teachers used to say, ironic people make you laugh with them, while sarcastic people laugh at you. And that’s all the difference between empathy and narcissism.
¹Merriam-Webster — https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sarcasm