Sarcasm comes from the Greek sarkasmos that means the tearing of flesh. The intention behind sarcasm may be to be humorous or playful, but there is frequently an element of poorly disguised hostility or judgment. When we grow up in families in which sarcasm is frequently used, there can be an insensitivity to others’ sensitivity to it. It can feel hurtful or hostile to the person on the receiving end of it. It frequently diminishes a feeling of trust and safety, provoking feelings of anxiety or defensiveness due to never knowing when the other shoe is going to drop.
Sarcasm is a thinly veiled attempt to disguise feelings of anger, fear, or hurt. It can be a means of diminishing feelings of vulnerability that may be experienced in the willingness to acknowledge the underlying feelings. When the deliverer of the sarcasm gets angry or defensive at the recipient of it for “taking things too personally” or being “too sensitive” they are trying to invalidate the other’s feelings and avoid feeling guilty or responsible for causing them pain.
Sarcasm can be used with playful intent, but it’s important to try to access the other’s sensitivity to it by checking out their response to it and even asking them how they felt about it. Some people come from families where the use of sarcasm was commonplace; and they are used to being spoken to and speaking that way. They do not comprehend how they hurt others with their cutting tongue. Consider the case of Kevin and Jake. For a long time, Kevin just went silent when his husband made cutting remarks. The wounds were cumulative and he came to the point where he no longer was willing to take Jakes’ sarcasm without giving him feedback.
Kevin: “That hurt me.”
Jake: “You’re overly sensitive. What are you making such a big deal out of this for?
Kevin: “And that remark hurt me too.”
Jake: “Can’t you take a joke? You know I don’t mean any harm. It’s just how I talk.”
Kevin: “You may not intend to harm me. But I’m here to tell you that those kinds of remarks do hurt me.”
Kevin didn’t back down, nor did he resort to judging or criticizing Jake. His persistence paid off. It took a while, not just one conversation, but he did come to realize that his sarcastic remarks to his husband did hurt him and that he needed to clean up his act. Jake saw how he had damaged the trust in their relationship by continuing the low-level communication that characterized his family of origin.
Kevin had a realization too. He was willing to take responsibility for sucking it up for years, excusing Jake’s unpleasant behavior. Hundreds of times, when he had said to himself “He’s a good provider. He’s a devoted father and rationalized his hurtful behaviors. Kevin accepted that he had been complicit in allowing his sarcastic remarks to persist for so long. He was glad that he had reached a point where he was self-respecting enough to speak on his own behalf. It was quite a risk for him since he feared that Jake would leave the marriage.
It was Kevin’s consistent feedback that allowed Jake to take a look at how he was alienating his beloved. Since Kevin was responsible for his feedback, only reporting his distress, Jake was finally able to hear him and open up to making changes. Jake became aware of how frequently he had been hurt by his parents and sibling’s sarcastic remarks and made a strong commitment to learning to speak in a more respectful way.