"I Was Just Joking" - Sarcasm in the Workplace
We've all been there. Someone makes a comment and you can't tell if they're joking or not. We may study their face for a tell, take their comment at face value, or we may actually ask "are you joking?". Sometimes it's hard to tell when someone is being sarcastic, snarky or sincere.
The benefits of humor are widely known. Here is a short list of what humor does for us:
- Aids in learning
- Builds trust
- Improves productivity
- Reduces stress
- Builds credibility
In the workplace (and elsewhere), all it takes sometimes is a good group laugh that allows us to loosen up and work through a problem or reach a breakthrough. But sarcasm, a particular brand of humor commonly wielded by workplace bullies, can be offensive and easily misinterpreted.
Sarcasm gets it's original meaning from the Greek verb sarkazein which means "to tear flesh like a dog" (harsh!). It has since come to mean, according to Merriam-Webster, "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".
"You can build trust with the effective use of humor because humor often reveals the authentic person lurking under the professional mask" -Michael Kerr
So does sarcasm have a place in the workplace? Should it be banished from the workplace entirely? Or can it improve things like communication, relationships, and productivity?
STEPPING IN SARCASM
As beneficial as tasteful and victimless humor is, sarcasm in the workplace can lead to gross misunderstandings with severe consequences.
On November 9th, 1999, Albert Misan, then VP of Citibank Private Bank (NY), was asked in a Senate hearing to explain Citibank's involvement with the alleged funneling of drug money out of Mexico. Here is a short excerpt of the exchange:
SENATOR COLLINS: Did you comment to Ms. Elliot that she should, quote, lose any documents connected with the account?
ALBERT MISAN: I said that in a kidding manner. It was at the early stages of this. I did not mean it seriously.
Mr. Misan admits to telling someone to "lose any documents connected with the account", and in court said he was just kidding. Was he being sarcastic? Did Ms. Elliot understand that he was kidding or did she accept his comment at face value?
Mr. Misan's request to lose those documents puts Ms. Elliot in a dicey situation where she has to decide whether he's being serious or sarcastic. Her decision could have serious legal implications. If she thinks he's kidding, she may save the account documents which can then be used later in court. If she thinks he's being serious, she might destroy these important documents, for which there could be serious legal consequences. Why would Mr. Misan risk so much for a potentially funny comment?
HE DIDN'T MEAN THAT
Let's look back at Merriam-Webster's definition of sarcasm, "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".
It can be appropriate to show irritation, and who doesn't want to make people laugh once in a while? My concern with this definition of sarcasm is with these two things: insulting someone, and the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say.
So, by definition, to be sarcastic is to insult someone? We're all human and we all make mistakes, and when we do it's best to acknowledge our error and take responsibility right away, but I don't believe there's a scenario where insulting someone is appropriate. And doesn't saying the opposite of what you really want to say seem counterproductive? What if Mr. Misan had said exactly what he meant to say to Ms. Elliot? Would his integrity be called into question by a senate committee if he had said said what he meant?
AND IN THIS CORNER...
The idea of sarcasm appears to contradict some influential thinkers. In his book "The Four Agreements," Don Miguel Ruiz offers a code of conduct, four agreements to live by, he says is based on ancient Toltec wisdom from thousands of years ago. The very first piece of wisdom offered is to be impeccable with your word; speak with integrity and say only what you mean. That this knowledge has been successfully passed on to us by this ancient civilization over thousands of years emphasizes the enduring value of the art of clear communication.
"Sarcasm is a nasty attitude dressed up in decent words" -Tami Myer
Tami Myer is a speaker, author of two books and self-proclaimed "enthusiastic cheerleader for every marriage". She wrote an article last year called "10 Simple But Powerful Ways to Build Your Marriage". Guess what she listed as the very first simple, powerful way to build a successful marriage.
#1. No Sarcasm.
Alison Green, former chief of staff for a successful, medium-sized organization, and author of the popular blog "Ask a Manager," addressed sarcasm at work when one of her readers sent her a question in a post title "My Manager Told Me to Be Less Sarcastic, But I Don't Want To". Check it out when you get a minute.
BENEFITS OF SARCASM
Searching for a counterpoint to the negativity associated with sarcasm, I came across an article by Francesca Gino for Scientific American called "The Surprising Benefits of Sarcasm". In it, Francesca outlines a study finding that "those who engaged in a sarcastic conversation fared better on creativity tasks". Sarcasm can result in a boost to creativity.
Here is the conclusion of her article:
Sarcasm can be interpreted negatively, and thus cause relationship costs. So, how do we harness its creative benefits without creating the type of conflict that can damage a relationship? It comes down to trust...Given the risks and benefits of sarcasm, your best bet is to keep salty remarks limited to conversations with those you know well, lest you offend others—even as you potentially help them think more creatively.
I value creativity and I love when people I'm working with come up with creative ideas. The skill to solve problems in new, unconventional ways will always be in demand. But aren't there plenty of ways to boost creativity without the risk of damaging your relationships? Even this article about the benefits of sarcasm comes with a hefty warning in its conclusion.
IT'S A CULTURAL THING
It's clear why so many organizations invest in building a positive and healthy culture. Michael Kerr, author of "The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses are Laughing all the Way to the Bank," says the type of humor in the workplace depends on it's culture. For example, I'm guessing you may hear more sarcasm at a small tech startup or creative agency than at a law firm. Regardless of culture though, I can't help but wonder if the zingers, barbs, digs, and passive insults really help people work together and improve relationships.
Years ago, I worked in a small office for a short time with 4 colleagues. I was on a temporary assignment, there for only 2 days per week for about 4 weeks. On the first day I realized the culture was much different that what I was used to. That was the first time I heard the word "zinger", because the sarcasm ran like a faucet throughout the day and these colleagues would (sarcastically) complement each other on their zingers. Back and forth throughout each day my colleagues would lob zingers at each other like grenades and I would hear a sarcastic "Ohh, nice one" after a particularly biting remark.
How did all the zingers and general sarcasm, day after day, affect productivity and the social dynamics in their group? As the new guy, I noticed the sarcasm right away. I would think it would become a distraction at some point and have some kind of impact on trust, productivity, morale, etc, but I didn't stay long enough to find out.
I love to laugh and the right kind of humor in the workplace can energize people, build camaraderie, improve productivity, and a whole lot more. While the potential benefit of sarcasm is a few laughs, likely at the expense of his/her colleagues, and maybe a few people think slightly more creatively, the negatives seem to far outweigh the positives. Sarcasm can cause confusion, ruin relationships, make people feel awkward and uncomfortable, harm one's reputation...and the list goes on.
The risk of sarcasm is too great.
For me, workplace humor comes down to a simple 2 step process.
- Make us laugh!
- But don't insult anyone, even a little, and even if you're "just joking"
Go 24 hours without uttering a single sarcastic or snarky comment.
Now, don't eliminate tasteful, victimless humor. On the contrary, make em' laugh! We all need to enjoy the benefits of laughter. No, I'm talking about just the sarcasm and snark that puts others in a negative light. Summon the courage to say what you mean and you'll likely eliminate sarcasm from your communication altogether. Be careful not to offend or insult, but say what you mean in a way that builds relationships and expresses a desire to understand. It's harder than it sounds, but try it.
Will you notice anything different about your day? Will you reframe any comments to make them more positive? Leave a comment or send me a note to let me know how it went.
"Seek first to understand, then to be understood" -Stephen Covey
I found this video by Christopher Warren on the Ted-Ed Youtube channel that clarifies the difference between sarcasm, verbal irony and compliments in an interesting and effective way.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on sarcasm in, and beyond, the workplace? Did you complete the homework? Please let me know in the comments below or at my website www.milesshattuck.com.