Sarcasm as social teaching

by Michelle Lasley

Michelle Lasley is a mother, wife in Pacific Northwest learning to balance green dreams with budget realities.

September 6, 2008

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Categories: Family

Cristi Christmas.jpg

Image by alexis22578 via Flickr

A few years ago, a friend was explaining to me how he and his new love viewed sarcasm as a cop-out for being in touch with one’s own feelings. For a while, I pondered this explanation and considered it an interesting take on sarcasm. Soon, I realized I wasn’t really going to give up my sarcasm even if this mode of thinking was juvenile compared to the more enlightened living without sarcasm; I would rather be juvenile than dull.

That said, recent interactions have reminded me of the importance of sarcasm as a tool for social teaching. Particularly when it is used to show someone they have erred without specifically saying, “You’re wrong.” Sarcasm, when used appropriately, seems to be a way to offer a humorous alternative to the middle-manager. For example, my mother-in-law was helping me make hamburg patties for my graduation celebration. I asked her to add the spices, and she was being very ginger about it. So, I jokingly said, “Come on! You can do better than that!” And, we giggled at the spice mishap.

But, when does it go bad? When does it go wrong? When do we resort to sarcasm too much? For example, I value personal freedom and choice and find ridicule, shame, and embarrassment as means of social discipline infuriating on many counts. Take teen pregnancy as an example. Why do we feel it is appropriate for a teenager mother to be shunted off and hidden away while she deals with a very difficult time in her life and probably shouldn’t be cut off from her support network? When I was in high school, I heard about a school for pregnant moms and a few of my classmates who no longer attended class with us were rumored to be going to “that” school. I don’t know the particulars of their situations, but it seems that hiding the problem only makes it the elephant in the room about whom no one speaks. Were these girls given the choice to attend “regular” public school or the other, or were they politely asked to leave?

Maybe the point is to remember to have fun and be open and honest about how we feel about something. What would happen to our society if replaced the temptation to say, “You should,” with “I feel?” For example, what would have happened to Cristi if I called her when I found out she asked Joe to move in with her. What would have happened if I called her and said, “Cristi, I think I understand that you want to be closer to Joe, but I feel like I should tell you that he makes me afraid, and I feel afraid for you with him living with you, and I feel like you should know how I feel.” Would she have thought about it more? I don’t know what other people said to Cristi about Joe, but I know I wasn’t the only one who was afraid for her by being in that relationship. With my families tendency to assume that the person we worry about won’t hear us, I can only imagine we are saying, “I think you should,” instead of, “I feel.”

So, let’s check ourselves. Maybe that’s the moral of this thought process. Let’s examine when we’re using sarcasm. Are we in a place where wit is a cover up for expressing feeling, or is it genuine fun?

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