It’s ugly, isn’t it?  — the way we communicate when we’re under incredible amounts of stress. When you communicate under great stress, you can damage your relationships, but boy oh boy, it’s tough to keep your cool when it seems the world is conspiring against you.

PHOTO CREDIT: Stock Unlimited

One of the most unproductive and destructive forms of communication and one that raises its head during stressful times is sarcasm.

Years ago, a friend was helping me load a rather large TV into the back seat of my car. In order to minimize the chance of theft, he asked that I get a blanket from inside so we could cover the TV. I came back, not with a blanket, but a large scrap of heavy fabric I’d found. It looked like this material would cover the TV nicely and then I could leave my good blanket on the couch where it belonged.

I asked my colleague if the fabric was covering his side of the TV, and he retorted sarcastically, “Why use a blanket when we can use this piece of —-“. 

Without a word, I removed the fabric and returned with the blanket. Doggone it, he was right. The scrap of fabric I had grabbed was too small and the blanket really was the better choice. The content of his message was correct. It was the way in which it was delivered that was ineffective. 

And it hurt.

I gave it a few minutes and then broached the subject, telling him that I understood his point. I also told him that I didn’t understand the sarcasm. In my eyes, there was no reason for him to lash out as my actions weren’t malicious. There was no ill intent and I explained to him that, in my view, the sarcasm was misdirected. It was delivered in an angry tone and not as a joke, when all I was doing was helping.

I’m not sure he got it. He may have missed the lesson, so in an effort to share it with others, here it is …

COMM TIP: Sarcasm is veiled contempt.

It may be unabashedly aggressive and targeted or be masked as “a joke”. Either way, it is destructive and an ineffective way to communicate when stressed. It discounts otherwise useful comments that may be lost in the sting. There’s a more effective way to get your point across.

Instead of being sarcastic, blatantly and respectfully say what you mean.

In this case, saying, “this piece of cloth really isn’t working. Thanks for the try. Let’s see if the blanket will work instead”. Validating, acknowledging the attempt, politely explaining it doesn’t work–now, that’s respectful communications.

When was the last time you were in a meeting and you disagreed with a statement, perhaps something a colleague was proposing? How did you respond?

If you’re tempted to use sarcasm 

If sarcasm is your go-to response, ask yourself “why”. Is the action prompting your response deliberately malicious or delightfully unintentional? If no ill intent exists, sarcasm has no place. Direct and respectful communication will yield better results, hands down. And it’s so much more becoming of you and your professionalism.

If you’re the recipient of sarcasm

Point it out to the offender, describing how it makes you feel to be on the receiving end. Give credit for the content of the message (it’s quite often good!) and gently explain how sarcasm risks the valuable and useful message being lost. As difficult as it is to resist a retort or to dish back sarcasm in return, view these situations as a chance to hone your communication skills… and perhaps provide some insight to a colleague.

Sarcasm has no place in a respectful work environment. There’s a difference between playful humour and hurtful remarks. Now go play nice 😉

c 2011-2020 MarionSpeaks

©2021 Marion Grobb Finkelstein

Until next time, here’s to …
Better communication, Better business, Better life,
Marion Grobb Finkelstein
Keynote Speaker / Corporate Trainer / Author
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Post your comments and reactions below. There are no right or wrong responses, just honest, respectful ones. I’d love to hear your opinion. What about this article resonated with YOU?

Marion Grobb Finkelstein

Marion Grobb Finkelstein helps leaders use their natural communication strengths to build resilient teams that talk.


  • Anne Baliva says:

    Sometimes people use sarcasm covered through humour. And why? Are they covering up their anger of not being heard, do they feel they can’t effectively communicate what they want or are they afraid of someone else’s perspective?

    • Anne, you’re right–there are many reasons someone is sarcastic. When they lash out, it’s often because they hurt or feel inadequate or attacked in some way. The key, I believe, is to figure out the “price” of current behaviours, like destroying or damaging relationships. When that price is too high, that right there is the incentive to change. Until that happens, change won’t happen.

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