Witty, Funny…or Plain Old Hurtful?

I think the universe is trying to send me a message.

Lately I have facilitated an unusual number of sessions where participants offer feisty opposition to my listing of sarcasm as a behavioural example of workplace incivility. Some even say “I have a sarcastic personality, and I have no intention of changing.” One of the key justifications I hear is that, as they see it, the intense pressures of work in their arena require some sort of outlet. I’ve heard it in hospitals, in customer service centres, social service organizations and the legal community, to name a few.

I see folks making sarcastic comments directly to a colleague, or about other colleagues behind their back. And I hear it in the way that people refer to their clients, patients and customers. It’s everywhere.

The intensity of these recent experiences led me to decide that it’s now time for me to come out with a strong opinion on this matter. It is my sincere hope that this will be useful as you think through your own position.

Sarcasm Does HurtFirst, what exactly is sarcasm?

According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, sarcasm refers to “The use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say, especially in order to insult someone, to show irritation, or to be funny,” and “A sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain.” (Sarcasm is different from irony, which is devoid of the pain element.)

I find myself befuddled. How did we shift away from viewing sarcasm for what it mostly is — an insult or pain-causing activity — and begin to view it as a legitimate form of dealing with fellow human beings in the workplace?

Here are some contributing factors (a partial list):

  1. Workplace attitudes are influenced by larger societal forces. For example, sarcasm is a dominant and accepted form of humour in sitcoms, comedy, and social media. It has become associated with wittiness, cleverness and fun. Its darker sides have become obscure.
  2. In many lines of business people perceive their organization or sector to be “unique” and involving a high degree of pressure. They feel entitled to release the pressure in whatever form feels good in the moment, and sarcasm is viewed a legitimate defence mechanism. (I have heard the “unique” reason in almost every session lately.)
  3. Managers don’t hold people accountable because they are oblivious to the damage that sarcasm inflicts on individuals and the team culture.
  4. Managers don’t know how to deal with it.
  5. Managers are sometimes the worst “offenders.”
  6. Colleagues don’t know how to react constructively—it is exceedingly difficult to respond to a communication where the negativity of the message is delivered mostly through tone and body language. So instead they do nothing, or withdraw, or get even or (worst of all) adopt the same behaviour.

So, my friends, here’s a piece of utterly unsolicited advice you may not want to hear: Cut it out.

I mean it.

Simply decide that you are never going to be sarcastic about anyone or anything, and then go ahead and live your decision from here on out.

Sarcasm not only sticks a knife right into the receiver’s heart (even if you tell yourself it’s not so and even if they’re not even there). If you think it makes you look good, it actually doesn’t — it’s just that other people don’t have the courage to tell you that. And finally, it also contaminates you from the insides.

Some years ago I made the decision to eliminate sarcasm from my personal repertoire of behaviours. It has been an amazing gift to me, on many fronts. Please accept this invitation to join me on this journey.

Let’s explore what the universe has in stock for us.

And, if you really think about it, what have you got to lose?


Contact me directly if you want to commit to omitting sarcasm from your own discourse so I can personally congratulate you.

And, of course, if you’d like to make your work environment more civil, we’re here to help.

This entry was posted in Blog, Leadership, Respectful Workplace, Workplace Incivility. Bookmark the permalink.


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