“I recently hired Amy, a 45 year old, knowledgeable insurance broker who brought her clients to us. While competent, we discovered one major flaw; she is horribly sarcastic to everyone on her team, and it isn’t funny, it is hurtful. I do not want to terminate her. You have a lot of resources, so could you help provide me with some suggestions on how to deal with sarcastic people. Thanks, Sylvia.
At Work or Home, Sarcasm is Toxic
I ran Sylvia’s question by Jennifer Petriglieri, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD, the Paris, France-based graduate business school and author of Couples That Work, her book on how dual-career couples can thrive in love and in work. I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer for my review of her book some months ago.
“Sarcasm is very toxic in all relationships,” she points out, “whether at the office or at home. It is a communication pattern that no one responds to well. It is contrasted with irony, that some people react well to and others react badly to. But sarcasm everybody reacts badly to.”
I asked, “What’s the best way of dealing with it on the job if it comes from a co-worker?”
“Coming from someone junior or one of your peers it is easier to deal with. For those people, use direct feedback, such as, ‘When you said X in a sarcastic way it made me feel defensive, and not want to interact with you anymore.’ That statement conveys the impact of what the sarcasm does to you and it makes it clear that the consequences will be I don’t want to interact with you.”
But, if from the boss? Then what?
“We can break that circle with people who are less senior, but it is very difficult with people who are more senior for two reasons:
(1) It is much harder to give negative feedback to our boss.
(2) People who are sarcastic tend to respond to feedback with sarcasm. It creates a vicious circle.
Strategies For Dealing with it At Work
Jennifer proposes these strategies for dealing with sarcasm on the job, observing that in general, HR will take no action as it isn’t actual harassment and likely does not violate any company rules. So:
“Ignore it if you can, but if the situation does not improve, then speak with your boss’s peers. Let these people know that if this continues, you may have to quit, and that you don’t want to.
“The last thing you can do is to just leave – quit – as it is rare for people who are constantly sarcastic to stop. If management won’t tell the person to knock it off, do not let them cause you any more grief – but find a new job first!”
Sarcasm at Home Can Destroy a Relationship
“At home the stakes are very high,” she is quick to note. “Studies show that relationship with lots of sarcasm don’t last long. So, you must confront your partner, say how you feel and express the potential consequence which is, “I am not going to stick around if you continue to be so sarcastic.’ It is one of a number of toxic communication cycles that couples can get into.
“We have found that how you were raised can influence your behavior with significant others. If your parents were sarcastic to each other you might think of it as normal. It is really abnormal but not necessarily your destiny.”
In my own family law practice, I recall the wife, raised in a family of constant sarcasm which she used on her husband. He begged her, “Please stop! I am not sarcastic with you. It does not even enter my mind to think that way.”
She got the message and they are, today, a happy couple.
And If You Feel A Sarcastic Remark Coming On?
If you feel yourself about to say something hurtful and sarcastic, Jennifer offers this insight:
(1) Silence is best – don’t say anything!
(2) Ask, “What am I trying to communicate?”
(3) Be honest and direct instead of using sarcasm. If you are upset, explain why instead of hiding your reasons with sarcasm.
(4) Agree that we will both endeavor to show more respect for each other.
A Strong Predictor of Relationship Success
“When you look over the long term, the thing that most predicts a successful relationship–at home or at work–is kindness,” Jennifer maintains, “showing appreciation and validation for the good things we see our colleagues do for us at work, and our spouses at home.
“We need to say these things out loud. We need to say thank you for doing such a good job.”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.