We all know someone who can give the most sarcastic responses at the most inconvenient of times. For example, when I have spent hours trying to debug a circuit and am close to breaking point, and someone comes and asks me “Is it working yet?” I can never think of the right way to respond. On the one hand I could simply say, “no, unfortunately it’s not working yet and I am trying to figure out why”. However, what I usually say is, “Yes, of course it is! That’s why I’m sitting here with my head in my hands looking frustrated.” Sarcasm in this situation could, and usually does, come off as rude, possibly hurtful, and unnecessary. After all, it was a valid question and had I been a little calmer, I might not have responded so sarcastically. But does sarcasm always have to be a bad thing?
I recently came across this post on Eng-Tips Engineering Forums, a work forum community for engineering professionals, where somebody was upset by all the sarcastic comments and replies that were on the website. I started reading through the thread, out of curiosity, and it was very entertaining but also somewhat thought provoking.
People were justifying their use of sarcasm by saying that it was harmless and expected in an environment of engineers. A common consensus among the group was that “engineers can be a sarcastic bunch”. Another popular statement was that “sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence”, a quote by Oscar Wilde. A shared idea that was passing through the thread seemed to be that since engineers were a group of very intelligent people, it is not surprising that they tend to give such sarcastic responses. Some others were also of the opinion that at times people ask ridiculous questions that they could simply find the answer to themselves and questions like those get a sarcastic reply because of how frustrated people are by it.
But that got me thinking. Is sarcasm really related to intelligence?
The word ‘sarcasm’ comes from the late Greek word sarkasmos which means ‘a jeer’ or ‘a mockery’. The word literally means ‘to strip off the flesh’. Therefore, it’s pretty clear that sarcasm was not meant to be a good thing. However, there was research conducted at Harvard and Columbia University that showed that using sarcasm does in fact relate to intelligence and creativity.
Simply put, using and understanding sarcasm requires you to think a little harder than a direct answer would. A simple and expected answer to a question causes a person to think only about what the right answer to the question would be. However, with sarcasm, one needs to think about the expected and correct answer in addition to how they really feel about the subject. The result is a sarcastic comment which expresses the true feelings of the speaker while also requiring the receiver to think about the real meaning of what is being said. This little bit of additional brain activity requires creativity and can sometimes lead to a deeper understanding between two people.
Researchers also say that people who have a tendency to be sarcastic and understand sarcasm are known to be more creative. They think more outside-of-the-box because their sarcastic responses require them to ponder differently and abstractly. It moves them away from the norm of an expected response. Researchers at Harvard studied this phenomenon and concluded that those giving and receiving sarcastic replies performed three times better on the creativity tests that were set for them as compared to people who were exposed to straightforward replies.
Nevertheless, despite being an opportunity for intelligence and creativity, sarcasm is not always the best way to respond. In more professional environments, it can be seen as immature and can often lead to misunderstandings if not interpreted correctly. Yet, it may also lead to stronger bonds between two friends. My advice, think before you bring out the sarcasm! Make sure that the people it is directed towards will understand and appreciate it, otherwise it could do more harm than good.