For two years of my life, I didn’t use sarcasm.
- Get your time sheets in on time.
- No sarcasm.
We were working with vulnerable populations of kids: kids who had inconsistent or non-existent adults in their lives, kids who didn’t trust anyone because no one around them was worth trusting, kids who’d been betrayed by false promises or good intentions one time too many. It’s not that the adults around them were always terrible people or anything, just mostly broke and struggling and yes, sometimes a little terrible, too. But our antidote was to be incredibly consistent (which does not always look the same as “nice”), and sarcasm would have undermined that in a second. Classroom sarcasm is vicious and awful, a resort of tired teachers or jaded teachers, or of people who never learned another method of discourse.
I still rarely use sarcasm. The articles here, Stock Photo Hell in particular, get snarky, but I try to avoid outright sarcasm. In Stock Photo Hell, for example, I really was describing the world that these stock photos were suggesting. And the photos and I meant it, as weird and awful as it often was.
I’m not wholly anti-sarcasm-ever. I think it has its place sometimes, particularly when used for great justice, or with compassionate intent. Some work situations require sarcasm as self-defense because they are fundamentally toxic environments. Nonetheless, I don’t use sarcasm in my personal relationships. My partner called me out on saying something sarcastic to him the other day; I apologized. I said it because I was hurting, and didn’t know how to express myself in the moment.
I think sarcasm is often held up as a sacred cow, in particular to nerdy communities, because of pain. Being genuine involves risk and hurt and pain. Being genuine, not hiding behind a shield of snark where you can take back anything you said at any moment if it seems to be going over poorly, that’s vulnerable as hell.
So does that mean that I’m descending on a cloud of genuine intent, sitting next to Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson and Agent Dale Cooper*, and staring at you disapprovingly whenever you use sarcasm?
Heck, a lot of sarcasm can be hilarious, fun, smooth. But think about the times you do use sarcasm and ask yourself: What kind of a tool is this? Is it a probe of inquiry? A punching-bag-in-the-box of humor? A shield from pain? A flailing eggbeater of social awkwardness? And are you using it that way on purpose? Some of the least sarcastic, most genuine people I know have been through and are recovering from some kind of addiction. I am still not sure what that means, but I continue to think about it.
So, what to do? Swear off sarcasm like some do with red meat or gluten?
I think there’s a subtler approach. One way to test out other sarcasm modalities is to write characters who use varying amounts of sarcasm. How does Agent Dale Cooper react to situations that’s different from how Gregory House reacts to situations? Look at a character in your favorite book or film. How do they use sarcasm? How often do their actions match their words? Do you always write genuine characters? Or sarcastic ones? Try writing the opposite. See how it feels.
*Captain from the Ankh Morpork City Watch in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books and investigating agent in Twin Peaks, respectively, and two of my favorite incredibly genuine characters in literature.