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Business and Communication – Eliminating Sarcasm

Today’s post is written by my good friend and life coach Linda Lord. She enlightened me on the sarcasm issue a few years ago. I have personally focused on eliminating it in both my business and personal life and have benefitted greatly as a result. To find out more about Linda and her business, please click here. – Paul

Sarcasm is not the Communication Answer

It has been said that people don’t necessarily remember WHAT you say to them, but HOW you say it. So is there one delivery method more than any of the others that creates interpersonal conflict? In my professional practice working with individuals on soft skill enhancement, I have to say that sarcasm, or passive aggressive communication, is the most lethal. And I realize that sarcasm is used at home and at work to ‘lighten’ things up, but the actual results of such communication indicates that the reverse is true.

Research shows that essentially there are four styles of communication: assertive, passive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive. Assertive is the most desirable in non crisis communications because all parties feel comfortable in expressing themselves and feel heard after sharing. Passive communication has its place if the individual(s) don’t feel strongly either way about the topic, but can be misunderstood when the stakes are higher and it is assumed that the individual doesn’t care at all. Aggressive communicators tend to be the take charge individuals and have the potential to railroad people; however in a crisis, this communication style has merit. Finally, the passive-aggressive style, in my opinion, only has a downside. Passive-aggressive communicators never come at you straight, so you can never be certain of their motives, or their target.

I do use the word target knowingly. Passive-aggressive communicators tend to be quite intentional and manipulative; laying in wait for people. One of the strategies they use is sarcasm. According to the World English Dictionary sarcasm (n) is a mocking, contemptuous, or ironic language intended to convey scorn or insult; the use or tone of such language. According to The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, (Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved) a cultural definition of sarcasm is as follows:  A form of irony in which apparent praise conceals another, scornful meaning. For example, a sarcastic remark directed at a person who consistently arrives fifteen minutes late for appointments might be, “Oh, you’ve arrived exactly on time!” Ever heard anyone make a similar comment to make a point while saying they were only kidding around? I won’t ask if you have ever used this technique, because we all have. Many people don’t even realize how hurtful such comments can be.

The truth about sarcasm is that it is never victimless. There is always a target. Sometimes it can start out simple enough as a gentle behavioural poke. A boss makes a snide comment rather than tackling a bigger issue with a staff member; a client gets a gentle tease because they paid a bill late; or a co-worker takes a tiny poke at the quality of a project recently completed by someone else. It sets the stage for ‘one upmanship’ that can have devastating interpersonal consequences. I have watched professional teams disintegrate as a result of their communications deteriorating to sarcasm as their sole communication tool. When sarcasm takes over, it becomes a game to see who can get the most strikes in during a communication. Often, the result is that people start to resent each other; they no longer feel that they can trust their teammates, and eventually all communication stops.

If it sounds like a drastic, worst case scenario, outcome; you are right. Not all work places deteriorate to the point that I describe above, but knowing that might happen, is it worth the risk? At those times when you feel compelled to use sarcasm as a way to make a humorous point, think about the possible implications of your choice and reflect on the other communication styles mentioned above. Is there a way to create a workplace culture that supports honest communication, where everyone feels comfortable interacting with each for the overall success of the business? Whether you are the boss, the owner, the front line support, or the client, you have control over how you choose to speak to others. Sarcasm is never the answer.

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