by Robine Jean-Pierre
Growing up, sarcasm was practically my native tongue. I spoke it most fluently with my siblings. It was something we naturally did to mess with each other, without giving it much thought. I can hear my older brother and sister saying mockingly, “Nooooo…. Really?” in response to what they deemed was an obvious, redundant statement on our part.
As I got older, however, I gradually decided to minimize my use of sarcasm. I felt that I was being unnecessarily condescending and rude by primarily using sarcasm to mock my younger sister and cousin. It had gotten so bad that when I did stop, they had to keep asking me, “Are you being serious or sarcastic?”
Another factor in my decision to reduce, if not altogether eliminate, my sarcastic comments was the fact that “sarcasm is not universal.” (While it can be argued that the use of sarcasm actually is universal, its uses may vary from culture to culture. If you are interested in more, see this LanguageLog post on irony and sarcasm.) This phrase was repeated at Camp Rising Sun all summer, which I attended during high school. The camp consisted of about 60 girls from all over the world, so it was a potpourri of cultures, interests, and preferences. Many of the international girls were uncomfortable with a New Jersey camper whose sarcastic comments they took literally, not knowing any better.
A similar awkwardness initially infringed on our friendship when I had realized that my fiancé, Angel, did not fully understand sarcasm. I’ll admit, the discovery was a little disappointing; I would not be able to tease him (or subtly express an offense) in the way I best knew how. In spite of this, it still slipped out with him sometimes, especially when I had a bad day. For instance, if I said something like, “Wow, I overslept and the trains are running with delays. Isn’t that just wonderful?” rather than scoffing with me, Angel would nervously reply, “No, that’s not wonderful, honey…” and try to lighten the mood.
On another occasion, Angel had been texting me all about how an event had gone that morning, and how happy and “fired up” all of the attendees had been. I, on the other hand, had not been there and was waiting impatiently to tell him how I was doing. Feeling peevish and “salty” (as they say nowadays), I texted him, “My morning was great too, thanks for asking.” As you can imagine, he was not very happy about this, and I told him what was on my heart. I realized then that, in most cases, it would suffice to be straightforward and honest, not passive-aggressive.
Now I save sarcasm for the situations that would least likely cause offense. I crack sarcastic jokes on the MTA all the time, and even Angel chimes in now and then. (He’s learning!) I still say “oh, great” or “that’s nice” at times when I literally mean “this is awful.” And naturally, I am more likely to use sarcasm with people who also use it, so that there is a mutual understanding (which is the key to all communication!).
How do you feel about sarcasm? Do you use it or understand it? Why or why not, and when? Please feel free to share your thoughts below.