How to Be Sarcastic

Peter Wood

Americans have long prized sarcasm. We have had whole epochs of movies driven by sarcastic retorts. What would the cinematic world be from Jimmy Cagney through Pulp Fiction, without wise-talking gangsters, smart-aleck private eyes, world weary cops, and cynical journalists?  We have great theater—think of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf—built entirely of sarcastic repartee. Teen “culture”—if we can call it that—has been one long trial by a jury of sneers. Americans have made an art of impudence.  All of which should be a point of national pride.

But like other forms of American exceptionalism, our well-earned reputation for sarcasm is in decline. The causes are many. The cult of sincerity breaks out every third generation or so. Its practitioners seek to shame us into abiding by rules of mutual respect that would choke off our genius for congratulating buffoons on their buffoonery.  To say kindly and simply what really ought be conveyed in a “No s—, Sherlock,” is a concession to mediocrity. It exhibits an underlying weakness in the national character. Every so often we collectively succumb to the temptation to spread our doubts with the butter knife of solicitude when the scalpel of annoyance would be the better instrument.

We know we are in one of these periodic troughs when we are inundated with laments about how nasty everyone has become.  Is the present presidential election exceptionally rife with smears and invective? Has popular culture hit an all-time low of scabrous abuse served up as entertainment? Have ad hominem attacks generally displaced courteous exchange in the classrooms and journals of opinion? Are we in need of lessons on civility, perhaps mandated as part of college education? Maybe. The cultural temperament, as I’ve written elsewhere (A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now) has indeed shifted towards more open and prideful expression of disdain.

But this openness about disdain is itself part of the cult of sincerity. We tell ourselves that it is healthy and good to get all that anger out. It’s a part of authentic living. That kind of look-at-me-I’m-pissed-off display, however, is a long way from sarcasm. Sarcasm bites into pretension.  Prideful anger is itself a kind of pretension.  Sarcasm, for all the license it takes, is a form of restraint. Its a way of avoiding the obvious while nonetheless giving it voice.

The Sarcasm Deficit

The blade-dulling self-esteem movement may be implicated here, as too the internet. The internet? Isn’t it a virtual hive of sarcastic bees ready to swarm at a moment’s notice?Think of the readiness of Obama supporters to make light of Romney transporting his Irish setter, Seamus, in a dog carrier on the roof of his car in 1983; and the equal readiness of the Obama detractors to mock his confession in his memoir that as a child in Indonesia he dined on dog. The spirit of sarcasm surely lives in these jousts but something important is missing. Genuine sarcasm requires a personal stake, a face-to-face tension that anonymous squibs and rhetorical drone attacks cannot provide.

Higher education also bears part of the blame for our anemic state. To excel at sarcasm requires a combination of intellectual confidence and actual knowledge of what’s going on.  Too steady a diet of ideological conformity wears down the sarcastic sensibility. Sarcasm is the willingness to call out a false pretense right in the moment it presents itself. That’s difficult to do if all you’ve got is a little collection of cosseted certainties.

Lastly we are awash with protestors who are at pains to demonstrate the unanimity of their views. Occupy Wall Streeters donned Guy Fawkes masks or dressed as corporate zombies. Protesters demanding the arrest of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin took to the mass wearing of hoodies. What might have been clever the first time or when staged by a few becomes a stultifying lack of imagination when copied by a crowd or turned into the insignia of a movement. A sarcastic gesture is reduced to a tiresome proclamation of “me too.”

How Can I Be More Sarcastic?

I’m glad you asked.  First,  take this on as an individual project.  Sarcasm is a personal skill, not a collective undertaking. Second, distinguish sarcasm from irony. All sarcasm partakes of irony, but irony is a broader concept. Both involve declaring the opposite of what the speaker really means. But sarcasm is directed at disabusing someone of a vanity, while irony need not be personalized at all. If you say to a fat person, “You must be hungry,” and mean by this, “you eat like a pig,” you are sarcastic. If you say that, “Judging by their girth, Americans must be hungry,” you are offering irony that isn’t really sarcastic, and may even be a bit poignant, if the intent is to imply, “Something must be unfulfilling in American life for so many people to feed themselves to excess and still want more.”

So how do we improve our sarcasm?  Some tips:

Keep it simple.  “Impeccable logic” is a much better response than a mocking five-part dissection of the inanities your colleague has just served up.

Stay in the moment.  Sarcasm that attempts to serve up a multi-part indictment for the target’s past transgressions against reason or taste comes across as whining.  “What a beautiful dress” is better than, “Why didn’t you tell me you were going to the thrift store again?”

Compliment the vanity.  The best sarcasm rewards the fatuous by praising them for what they mistakenly take pride in.  “That’s the best-read speech I’ve heard all year.”

Be polite.  Sarcasm at its best is polished impoliteness.  Don’t mar the finish.  “I appreciate the advice,” not “I appreciate the advice and will be sure to ignore it.”  Some sarcastic wit is amusing on paper but wouldn’t work in a real situation.  I feel so miserable without you, it’s almost like having you here,” writes Stephen Bishop.

Repeat your target’s own words.  This works on those occasions when someone has provided a tag line that can be artfully repurposed.  The Sarcasm Society’s motto is “We would love to hear what you think.”  Don’t try this at home.

Don’t wink.  Address yourself to the person whose pretensions you are skewering, not to the audience.

There are, of course, many in academe who pride themselves on their sarcasm. And rightly so. We wouldn’t be where we are today in higher education without our wits.  I offer my advice only for those who feel the need for a little refresher.

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