Change Anything QA

How to Eliminate Sarcasm

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

Kerry’s recent article, Confronting Workplace Sarcasm, unfortunately resonated with me as someone who uses sarcastic humor and often fails to see the negative impact it makes. I am intrigued by Kerry’s assertion, “And so, I said goodbye to that part of me” and wondered if it was as easy as that statement sounds? Did you have to tell everyone you were trying to eliminate this habit and give them permission to call you on it? I, too, have had similar feedback from my wife, but I have failed to take the next step—much to my chagrin.


A  Dear Chagrinned,

You’re right. Nobody rids him- or herself of the “fun” use of sarcasm in one clean swipe. In my case, employing sarcasm wasn’t a mere tic that I had picked up along the way—such as saying “umm” too often or picking my teeth with a matchbook cover—and heaven only knows I have dozens of such tics. In my case, sarcasm was a finely crafted tool I honed and enjoyed for decades. It had all the short-term perks and tantalizing allure of any bad habit and was not going to go quietly into the night.

At first, I did exactly what you said. One day, after I had been particularly derisive with my wife, she informed me that my “sharp tongue” wasn’t something she admired. This revelation came as a total shock to me in that we were newly married, we had reared no children as of yet, and I still held a rather high opinion of myself. Shocked that my wife didn’t share in my love for irony, I swore that I would no longer hurl sarcastic remarks at her. In return, she hugged me, vowed to hold me accountable, and threw a party.

This method of influence helped a little, but eventually turned out to be insufficient because it required far too much monitoring on my wife’s part and didn’t get to the underlying causes of my problem. At its root, I preferred using irony to taking part in an honest and direct discussion. I was good at sarcasm. It brought me pleasure. Plus, I didn’t always see the negative effects of my verbal assaults. Sure, some of the people I put down would flinch a smidgeon, but more often than not, others around me would laugh out loud at my “clever” remarks or even high-five my efforts.

Then one day I said to my wife, “Oh I’m sorry, is vacuuming the living room beneath Your Highness?” She didn’t flinch. Instead, a tear came to her eye as she yanked the vacuum away from me and stomped into the next room. The tear got me. What was I thinking? Did I really need to get a cheap laugh or try to win an argument by using derision and irony—at my sweetheart’s expense?

I wasn’t perfect with my wife from this moment on—but I tried to be.

But then there was everyone else out there. I was raised in a university environment where professors routinely mocked their students for making naïve or inane responses. And being the team player that I am, I honored this fun university tradition.

“It appears to me, Mr. Johnson, that you missed the part of your undergraduate education where they taught logic and reason.”

I said something to this effect during an MBA lecture—everyone laughed hardily—and then I saw Mr. Johnson. There was no tear running down his cheek, but he looked quite wounded. And once again, my wife’s face flashed before my eyes.

Drat! Now I had one more place where I would be on my best behavior. I apologized to Mr. Johnson at the beginning of the next class period, and much like a twelve-stepper, I admitted to my flaw and promised not to use sarcasm with the students again. It was a big step. I now start every college class with a promise to push the students to their best and most careful thinking—but also to respect them.

I was on the mend. First my wife, next the classroom.

And then I had teenagers. If sarcasm is the effect, teenagers are the cause. As my own children grew into their “spread their wings” years I found myself constantly looking for ways to advise, teach, correct, and discipline them—and sarcasm was such a handy tool.

Fortunately, something came into my life right around the same time my children were coming of age and at least partially shielded them from my verbal stings. My research partners and I started studying the interpersonal skills associated with high-stakes conversations where emotions run strong and opinions vary. As you may have guessed, when it comes to holding these high-stakes conversations, using sarcasm is a no-no.

As our studies unfolded, I found a replacement for caustic comments. I learned how to calmly and respectfully describe a problem and ask for input. I learned how to distinguish a motivation from an ability problem. I learned how to motivate with natural consequences and enable others through jointly brainstorming possible solutions. In short, I learned several skills that enabled me to talk directly and effectively rather than tangentially and ironically.

Without these replacement behaviors, I’m quite certain I would have continued to heap on the sarcasm and use other indirect, punitive, and ineffective methods with my teenage children (and anyone else who let me down and then fell under my crosshairs).

Other tools have helped keep me on the path of dialogue. With one of the clients I worked with on a corporate turnaround, the execs used sarcasm so frequently and aggressively that they crafted and wore their own campaign buttons. The graphic on the buttons consisted of a red circle with a line through it. The word behind the line was SARCASM. Wearing these “no sarcasm” badges actually helped the team (and me when I was with them) remember to be on our best, most professional behavior.

On another consulting assignment, the leadership team I worked with created an “abuse jar.” Like the “swear jars” many people use as a tool for punishing foul language, members of this particular team required that each member put a dollar in the glass container every time he or she used harsh humor, threats, sarcasm, or other forceful means. One day when I said something that positively oozed with irony, one of the VPs required me to pony up a dollar. In retrospect, a sarcasm jar would have been a nice tool in my change arsenal.

Focusing on the consequences of my actions, contracting with others, developing alternate skills, creating visual reminders, building in financial incentives—all of these influence tactics helped me strip my repertoire of sneering remarks—but this wasn’t all that I did nor did I eventually eliminate sarcasm entirely.

To help ease my transition from wise guy to normal citizen, I learned how to apply sarcasm in a way that doesn’t harm others. I use it on myself. When teaching classes or writing articles, I make myself the target of ridicule and derision—and heaven only knows I give myself plenty of ammunition. This way I get it out of my system but at no one else’s expense.

And that, my friends, is the caboose to this rather lengthy train of thought.