“Nice of you to finally join us!” “Yeah, like that’s ever going to happen.” “Sure. We can set a deadline. We’re great at meeting deadlines!” What do you do when these things are said at the office?
Sarcasm is a fundamental and important part of our culture. But before we can talk about when and why people say these words, let’s be clear on what it means to be sarcastic. Merriam-Webster has a great definition:
sarcasm (n) – 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’t always see sarcasm at work, although there is a punctuation mark intended for this purpose. However, you can hear it in the way people speak. Here are a few common examples:
- I can’t wait to go to the dentist and get my teeth drilled!
- I just love paying taxes!
- I can’t stand it when people are nice to me!
The purpose of sarcasm is to allow us to talk about something that we feel is unacceptable without being direct. If we’re being flippant about our own feelings, (e.g. “I’d be happy to pay for the repairs even though they aren’t my fault”) we mean that we feel the opposite way (i.e. “I do not feel that I should pay for the repairs, because I am not at fault.”)
Sarcasm gets bad at the office, because it’s usually about other people or institutions. We make fun of customers, vendors, partners, or the company as a whole. Here are some more examples, along with their implication (one of our favorite workplace communication exposition techniques):
- “It must be nice to get to go on vacation.” (You don’t work as hard as me.)
- “I wish I got the easy projects.” (You are an office favorite and I’m a pariah.)
- “If I only had children, I’d get more sick days too!” (You use your kids as an excuse to be lazy.)
These are all pretty terrible. So what should you do when someone drops a sarcasm bomb in the office?
If you ignore it, that won’t do anything. If you respond with your own witty comment, you help reinforce the idea that it is acceptable. Therefore, the best response to sarcasm is to acknowledge it as evidence of frustration.
“It sounds like you have a concern. Can we talk about that? I want to do the best work possible, so if you have a concern I want to hear it so we can work through it. Can we talk about your concern?”
It’s true that some people won’t want to engage. But if that’s the case, you can ask them why they brought it up in the first place. You can even repeat their words back to them.
“Wait—I just heard you ‘thanks for deciding to grace us with your presence.’ What inspired you to say that?”
This can be a little awkward. Return to the emotion that is lying underneath, not the one that is stated aloud.
“It’s okay if you’re frustrated. But if a change needs to be made, we have to talk about it directly. Are you willing to share?”
Sarcasm can undermine morale at the workplace. Try not to engage in it yourself. And if other people use this technique, stop them by asking them why they are doing it.
Remember: the words you choose do make a difference.