You are waiting for your spouse and she's late. You glance angrily at your watch as the starting time for the movie draws nearer. Finally she walks through the door. "You remembered to come home," you declare. "How nice of you! And, punctual as ever! Maybe, if we rush like crazy, we'll only miss the first 10 minutes!"
Seem familiar? Is this the way you automatically express your anger — sarcastically?" When you are sarcastic, do you feel that you're relieving your anger and letting the person you are angry with know how you feel — and being smart and clever in the process? Actually, sarcasm is an extremely unhealthy, hurtful and ineffective method of communication.
While "sticks and stones may break your bones," words can and do make the frequent recipients of this kind of verbal abuse sick both mentally and physically. I see too often the severe emotional damage experienced by those who have been victims of sarcastic parents, spouses and employers. They have been wounded by words — verbally injured.
To add to the victims' pain, their abusers usually have refused to take any responsibility for their abuse by using the common defense of trying to make the situation the victims' fault, saying things like, "Can't you take a joke? I'm only kidding. You have no sense of humor!" As a result, the targets of these insults and put-downs lose confidence in themselves and their trust in others.
The wounds of sarcasm are not just emotional. According to a study at Ohio State University, couples who used "sarcasm, put-downs, overt nastiness and dismissals" were found to have more weakened immune systems than couples who settled their differences in more positive ways.
In addition to the resulting emotional and physical abuse of sarcasm, it is not an honest or effective method of communicating one's feelings. Sarcastic people often do not know how to be direct about what is really bothering them. Rather than saying, to use our example above, "When you are late, I feel angry. It shows disrespect and a lack of consideration, and we are often late to events, which I find frustrating and embarrassing. What can we do to help you be on time?" they use sarcasm, which disrespects and injures the other person to such a degree that any intended more accurate meaning is obscured by the pain of the words, so no real communication takes place.
An important part of being a successful person at home and at work is the ability to communicate assertively and effectively. Refuse to use the verbal weapon of sarcasm to get what you want. You can accomplish that instead by communicating clearly, honestly and respectfully with yourself and others and by insisting on clear, honest and respectful communication in return. And the recipients of sarcastic attacks need to respect and protect themselves by learning to effectively defend themselves with responses like, "I find your sarcasm hurtful and annoying, so why don't you tell me what's really bothering you so we can fix it?" Both victim and abuser need to emphasize expressing the real issue and the desire to cooperate in resolving it to the benefit of each.
Based in Rockport, personal coach Susan Britt, M.Ed., a former psychotherapist, teaches individuals, couples and families to resolve relationship conflicts, achieve life and career goals, and accelerate personal growth. Questions and comments may be addressed to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.