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When Humor Hurts: The Trouble with Sarcasm

By Dave Stuart Jr.

When I started, this post was called “The Case Against Sarcasm in the Classroom.” But upon doing the research and reflecting on how my own practice intersects with the topic, the case became less clear. And so I shifted my stance to the more nuanced, exploratory approach you'll find below. I hope you don't mind my indecision.

(Also, if you're wondering why the heck this matters, see my last post on the many benefits of humor in the classroom.)

Before we start, I know that there are plenty of smart readers of this blog who, like me, may identify with sarcastic humor and enjoy it and use it regularly. This post isn't meant to condemn. Rather, it should be thought of as a strictly an essay — a piece of writing meant to pursue, weigh out, and answer. Our objective, our job, and our calling is the long-term flourishing of young people. This is our one enduring standard. If sarcasm gets in the way of that goal, then I pray I've got the sense to rid myself of it posthaste.

Let's dive in.

When humor hurts

As I wrote last time, humor is often a good play in the classroom. It brings all kinds benefits to learning, motivation, and engagement. And the good news, too, is that humor is a learnable skill — even you, Ms. or Mr. When-I-Tell-Jokes-People-Cry, can get funnier if you try.

But in every place in the educational literature where you read about the benefits of humor in the classroom, you also find a caveat: some humor hurts.

For example, Romanian researcher Daniela Jeder writes that

some forms of humor may have a number of negative influences and in these situations humor may offend, can inhibit communication because of different styles to make jokes (which some do not understand), can create tensions, can trigger even fear, stress and depression. There are many variations of humor, among them being irony, sarcasm or ridicule that represent those forms of humor that people call to with relative ease, considering them frequently innocent and clever forms to joke.

(See Jeder's “Implications of Using Humor in the Classroom” from Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences.)

This isn't about kids being especially sensitive nowadays, either — it's about the mechanics of teacher credibility and student motivation.

We know that teacher credibility can be negatively affected, especially by offensive misbehaviors. This loss in credibility affects the motivation of offended students, as credibility is one of the five key beliefs beneath motivation. As well, when we offend a student with sarcasm — whether the insult is intentional or not! — that student is more likely not to identify with our classroom setting and devalue the work we ask them to do. The five beliefs, in short, are critically damaged when we offend a kid.

These offenses are always fixable, but that's beside the point of today's article. The question is this: is sarcasm ever a good idea in the classroom?

The case against sarcasm

A look at etymology

First, let's take a look at the history of the word.

Sarcasm began as a Greek word that means “to tear flesh.” In late Greek, it meant to “gnash the teeth” and “speak bitterly.”

Here's how Google sums it up:

  • noun: the use of irony to mock or convey contempt.
  • “his voice, hardened by sarcasm, could not hide his resentment”
  • synonyms: derision, mockery, ridicule, scorn, sneering, scoffing

Are you as surprised by how negative that definition is? Me too. When I look at the public discourse taking place in the United States right now, I see lots of the descriptors in that definition: mocking, ridicule, scorn, contempt. On every side, you see sneering and scoffing.

And would I ever describe this kind of discourse as the type that enhances long-term flourishing?

No.

There's this moment in Ryan Holiday's Conspiracy where he's describing the bloggers at the now-defunct Gawker Media. These folks were paid based on how many views and shares their articles got, and what they found is that the most outrageous and snide and mocking articles tended to get the most shares and clicks. And so this company helped shape the more negative cultures that have grown on the Internet through pumping out millions of words of mocking, derisive, ridiculing content.

This is the culture many of our kids are entering — or, thanks to the Internet, have already entered.

Are we wise to use sarcasm in the classroom?

Sarcasm and long-term flourishing

Here are the three reasons why I think I'll be much more careful in using sarcasm in the classroom from here on out.

First, as we discussed at the end of the last post, it's possible to be funny without using sarcasm. There are plenty of types of humor that don't venture into mockery or scorn — I like bad puns and gentle self-deprecation. So, we can get the benefits of humor without this form.

Second, the risks to student well-being are high. As David Sousa writes in How the Brain Learns,

More than ever, today's students are coming to school looking for emotional support. Sarcasm is one of the factors that can undermine that support and turn students against their peers, the teacher, and the school. When a student who is the object of sarcasm smiles, you really do not know if the student thinks the comment is humorous or is, instead, plotting revenge [or nursing pain]. Besides, there are plenty of sources of good classroom humor without sarcasm.

When I use the occasional bad pun or self-deprecating irony, I don't run those risks. Instead, I'm modeling for my students how to experience joy at the expense of no one, and how to warmly laugh at one's limits and shortcomings.

And finally, the risks to myself are high. Do I really want to practice, in my mind, my heart, and my speech, a form of humor that hardens, sneers, scoffs, and mocks? No because these things are not the characteristics of a flourishing life. Martin Seligman's PERMA framework, perhaps the most robust scientific conception of what individual experiences of flourishing are like, has no mention of sarcasm, no mention of contempt for other people.

I don't want my students to become mockers. I don't want this for my own children. I don't care that that's what lots of other people are doing — it's not what I want to do.

Instead, I want to use the sarcastic comments that bubble up inside my mind as clues to finding the bitterness and contempt I harbor in my heart. When I find it — towards a decision I don't like, or a politician, or a group of people, or what have you — I want to rid myself of it. It's no use carrying around.

I've had some people tell me, “Well, sarcasm is just the way I deal with things that I can't control.” I think there are better ways. There was a time, early in our marriage, where my wife and I would use sarcasm toward one another once in awhile. Sometimes, it was really funny. But then eventually, it got confusing and hurtful. There was pain mixed up in it because there were shades of contempt — just the tiniest hints — of things about each other that we found annoying or frustrating.

The trouble with this kind of communication, we found, was that it was so indirect. It didn't tell the other person what was going on inside. It protected the self and harmed the other — at the expense of both. We found in our marriage, and I've found in my classroom, that there are better — albeit harder — ways to communicate through problems.

I think that sometimes we can sarcastic with our students — or at least I've been sarcastic with mine — because of some hurt inside, something about them that we don't feel like we can change. But that's just another word for bitterness: the harbored hurt, the cultivated sense of being powerless.

The trouble is, bitterness and joy can't coexist.

The gist and the caveat

My study of humor in the classroom, and sarcasm specifically, has me ending here: the humor that's most beneficial is wholesome — meaning that it's a humor that all can enjoy. It doesn't hurt or offend or minimize another human being.

Sarcasm can easily fall away from that category — and it can do bad things inside of me — so for those of us who tend toward sarcasm, there's a call here for intense introspection. We've got to take the flashlight of reflection — and the flashlights of what our closest friends and loved ones see — and peer into our hearts. Where we find bitterness, we find an opportunity to do the internal work of teaching.

With that said, I do think of a few kids I teach who seem to appreciate my sarcasm. Gideon is one of them. He's super smart, and I taught his older brother, and the sarcastic banter we share each day is something I really like. I don't have any contempt or bitterness toward this kid — I appreciate the heck out of him. I don't know what to call this kind of humor — where we smilingly mock one other, but playfully, respectfully. I harbor no resentment toward Gideon — he's a great student.

If you've got a word for this kind of humor that's not sarcasm, please let me know in the comments. I'd love to label it correctly because it doesn't line up with the etymology of the word we've spent this whole essay exploring.

And then I did find these articles supporting the use of sarcasm:

  • In this article for Scientific American, researchers describe a creativity effect of sarcasm. But keep in mind the wise words of Dan Willingham: “One study is just one study, folks.”
  • In this article for the Smithsonian Magazine, neuropsychologist Katherine Rankin argues, “Sarcasm detection is an essential skill if one is going to function in a modern society dripping with irony.”

So there you have it: the trouble with sarcasm. I hope this helped you as you shape your own professional practice.

10 Responses to When Humor Hurts: The Trouble with Sarcasm

  1. Cathie S Loesing January 17, 2019 at 8:42 am #

    While Gideon may truly enjoy and appreciate your sarcastic banter, how is it affecting the other students in the classroom? Is it possible that sarcasm, even when addressed to a specific student, might negatively affect others in the room?

    • Dave Stuart Jr. (@davestuartjr) January 17, 2019 at 9:14 am #

      That’s right, Cathie — there are more people involved in that exchange than just him and I. Again, this is why I’d like a better word for this kind of humor. I’m not sure that it is sarcasm. It’s not cutting or derisive — more warm teasing than mocking.

      Great questions!

  2. Gerard Dawson January 17, 2019 at 9:10 am #

    Dave, the word “ribbing” is defined by Google as “good natured teasing.” This feels close to the interactions you describe with Gideon.

    Furthermore, I think it serves a useful and specific social function, and it happens most often between young males.

    This type of communication is a way of testing and exercising wit, as well as evaluating and fortifying a relationship. Because you both know you feel comfortable challenging each other, even risking subtle offenses, you reveal a respect for each other.

    Does that sound accurate?

    • Dave Stuart Jr. (@davestuartjr) January 17, 2019 at 9:16 am #

      Ahh — ribbing! Yes, that’s a good word, Jerry! And the nuance you add is incisive. More on this over at your blog soon, all right? It’s a wonderful thread you’re pulling on. You’ve described the situation with Gideon very well.

    • Nadine Andre January 17, 2019 at 3:49 pm #

      I think tone has a place here too! [Wow..are we just ELA nerds?] How you deliver comments to students is as important as what we say. I work in the inner city of the Bronx, and I can tell you that some kids need to be told certain things and actually want to be told certain things b/c self-discipline is not a priority in their lives. Perhaps this ties into the six things, but saying things from a point of “caring and concern” never hurts, and I am known to be pretty straightforward with the kids. Sarcasm implies “judgment” and that can hit a teenager hard, having some fun with students implies trust. I suppose like everything else we do as teachers, setting, tone, and ‘voice’ does matter, not just in an ELA novel but in the life of our students. Love your work Dave!

    • Diann January 18, 2019 at 12:39 pm #

      Gerard I like that you mention that males do more of this. The facts that surround male and female differences are tip toed around so much right now. I see ribbing between my 5 boys and husband all the time. It definitely is a characteristic of male bonding.

  3. elafrenchie January 17, 2019 at 10:35 am #

    Hey Dave! What about calling it “irony”? As the Webster defines it, “the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning” (since you’re expressing affection and complicity with words that say otherwise). Since that is a content word for ELA, we’ll be teaching a tool for textual analysis at the same time as an appropriate context and tone for it, all the while strengthening relationships with our students. Win-win-win?
    I like “ribbing” too – that’s what you’re doing, and “irony” is the tool for it!

  4. svens101 January 18, 2019 at 10:02 am #

    Dave, this is a great post, thank you! Do you have some examples of the “ribbing” that you and Gideon exchange?

    I also am now getting hyper aware of what I say (which is a good place to start). How would you classify the following interactions?

    Student: Miss, the stapler isn’t working.
    Me: Why’d you break it? (with a stern face for two seconds, followed by a big smile)

    or

    Me to the class, when explaining after school hw help: As we all know, Sandra never does her homework, so where should she be after school today? (Sandra is the student who has not missed a homework assignment all year, and everyone knows it. I say this with a smile).

    Are those examples of sarcasm? Are those examples of ribbing?

    Am I being too generous with myself and seeing my intentions while ignoring my potential impact?

  5. John January 19, 2019 at 9:16 am #

    Dave, this is a great topic for reflection about relationships, professionalism, and ethical responsibility! I don’t see how one could effectively teach junior and senior English courses without some sort of judicious and wise use of sarcasm. What I have found most important is to make sure the target of sarcasm is actually something that I also do–a kind of confessional acknowledgement. Just this week, a student asked me if I am fluent in another language, and before I could even start a reply, another student named Holly said, “He’s definitely fluent in sarcasm.” I’m delighted with the confidence and poise Holly had when she said this, and the class appreciated it too. Indeed, skillfulness in tone and timing on her part.

  6. Michelle Peterson January 19, 2019 at 2:05 pm #

    Dave, My son and son-in-law use playful banter quite often. I believe this is their identifying way to bond with one another. I think “banter” is a good word choice. Google defines the word banter as a noun to mean the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks and as a verb to mean talk or exchange remarks in a good-humored teasing way.

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