Ah, sarcasm. It seems ironic that such a droll form of humor can be used to lighten your mood rather than completely dismantle it. The word literally comes from the Greek and Latin words for "to tear flesh." Apparently, humor in the ancient world was so tongue-in-cheek that it could break the skin.
Known as "hostility disguised as humor," sarcasm has been used throughout our history, from characters in Shakespearean comedies to modern day jesters like Jerry Seinfeld. The use of sarcasm is so prevalent on the Internet that linguists have gone at length to describe the myriad ways it can be purveyed. But what good does sarcasm really do? I mean, the only purpose it serves is to make the sarcastic party feel superior to the receiver, right?
Well, not exactly. It seems the use of sarcasm and the ability to understand it has a lot to do with creativity. And the relationship between the two is much deeper than you’d first expect.
See Also: How to Deal with Sarcastic Coworkers
Francesca Gino of the Harvard School of Business, Adam Galinsky of the Columbia School of Business, and Li Huang of INSEAD teamed up to discover exactly how the use of sarcasm and a person’s creativity are linked. They found that “To create or decode sarcasm, both the expressers and recipients of sarcasm need to overcome the contradiction...between the literal and actual meanings of the sarcastic expressions. This is a process that activates and is facilitated by abstraction, which in turn promotes creative thinking."
Take the example from Seinfeld in the above link. The joke here, as if it needs to be explained, is that George believes he’d be safe from a maniac with a gun if they were on the crowded streets of Manhattan. Jerry rolls his eyes and says "Nah, no one’s ever been shot in the city." While you might not understand the joke if you’re not familiar with New York’s violent past, those who know about 1970s Manhattan get it right away. But it’s not truly an instantaneous understanding. Think of everything you must know to get this joke. You have to understand:
- The history of New York City
- George’s characteristic ignorance
- Jerry’s predisposition to making snide comments, especially toward his close friends
- What it means when someone rolls their eyes at someone else.
Taking everything you know about the current situation into consideration, you realize Jerry is being sarcastic, and you laugh and laugh (okay, now that I completely explained the joke, you probably don’t think it’s that funny anymore, but you get my point).
Think about that for a minute. We know that Jerry’s a quick-witted comedian, so it’s understandable that he was able to come up with an off-the-cuff remark so quickly (I know he’s just a character on the show, but stick with me here). That’s what comedians do.
But you, as an audience member, had to quickly add up everything pertaining to the entire situation to realize he wasn’t being serious and was pretty much calling George an idiot without actually saying it to his face. So not only did it require creative thinking for Jerry to come up with the remark, but it also required creative thinking on the part of the audience to understand the joke.
The research done by these three faculty members dug a bit deeper into the relationship between sarcasm and creativity. Gino stated, “Not only did we demonstrate the causal effect of expressing sarcasm on creativity and explore the relational cost sarcasm expressers and recipients have to endure, we also demonstrated, for the first time, the cognitive benefit sarcasm recipients could reap."
It might seem counter-intuitive, but those on the wrong end of a sarcastic remark actually benefit cognitively from the insult. And that makes sense: Just like the audience members had to think for a split second before they got the joke Jerry made, a person would have to quickly dig past the literal meaning of a sarcastic remark to figure out what the speaker actually meant by it. Not only that, but the recipient of a sarcastic remark is going to feel "under the gun" to come up with a scathing remark of his own, which will get his creative juices flowing even faster.
Of course, we’ve really only discussed the cognitive benefits and have ignored the emotional effects of being on the receiving end of a sarcastic comment. Gino further explains: "Additionally, for the first time, our research proposed and has shown that to minimize the relational cost while still benefiting creatively, sarcasm is better used between people who have a trusting relationship." Imagine you were walking down the street, and some random person came up to you and said "Nice shirt, did your mommy pick it out for you?" Right away, you’d know his comment "Nice shirt" was meant to be sarcastic, and you’d probably be incredibly hurt. Why would a complete stranger choose to insult you like that? Though you’d understand the sarcasm, it probably wouldn’t do much good for your creativity.
Now imagine you walk into your friend’s house and he says the same thing to you. You’d know he was just being his normal self, and you wouldn’t take the remark so seriously. You might even have a comeback ready to launch that would be even more scathing. In the first case, you were creative enough to understand your verbal assailant was being rude, but in the second scenario you weren’t left emotionally aching and were able to come up with a sarcastic quip of your own. Also, since you and your friend care about each other, there’s little chance of actually hurting each other’s feelings, meaning you can be a bit more creative with your comebacks (just don’t go too far).
So how did the researchers figure all this out? They placed volunteers in three different groups and assigned them to either speak sincerely, sarcastically or in a neutral manner with a partner (each member of each group knew which group they were in). After both parties had spent time expressing and receiving sarcastic remarks, they all took tests that examined their creative thought process. Those who spent time speaking sarcastically all performed better than those who spent time having sincere or neutral conversations. As mentioned before, it seems that being habitually sarcastic keeps one’s creative juices flowing. As Galinsky said, the study "suggests that sarcasm has the potential to catalyze creativity in everyone."
Cautions of Using Sarcasm
Even though it seems that sarcasm does have benefits to the giver and receiver, there are certainly times in which it should be used sparingly. As mentioned before, sarcasm against strangers can be incredibly detrimental; even if you know you were joking, that doesn’t guarantee the recipient of your jab will take your comment in jest.
Using sarcasm in the workplace is another taboo, especially when it comes to a male making a comment about a female. Standing in front of HR, saying "I was only kidding" won’t get you very far. Plus, gaining a reputation as a jokester in the office probably won’t put you in your boss’ good graces. It’s best to leave the sarcastic remarks for happy hour with your friends, where you know the worst thing that could happen is someone comes over the top of your comment and gives you your comeuppance.