General Question

weeveeship's avatar

How do you tell if sarcasm is mean-spirited or not?

Asked by weeveeship (4614points) September 27th, 2010

I’ve always wondered…

Let’s assume for discussion that the sarcastic person is a person you’ve just met and that you have no other evidence to show whether the person was just joking/teasing or being mean. How would you tell?

e.g. They ask me a question. I give a diplomatic, non-committal answer like “Possibly” or “I’ll consider it” to which they say something like “Ya right” with a grin.

The reason why I give a more diplomatic answer is that I don’t know the person very well and I don’t want to risk saying something that would offend the other person.

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29 Answers

YARNLADY's avatar

Sarcasm is something like teasing and tickling. It can be fun and light hearted or mean spirited meant to hurt people.

weeveeship's avatar

See, on one hand, I would think that the person is joking because of the grin. Also because the person has no other indications that he/she harbors ill feelings towards me. We are getting along fine and all.

On the other hand, their remark could make me seem untrustworthy or untruthful. I am not lying, per se. I’m just being non-committal (which is fair given that I have truly not made up my mind about something yet). Also, I think it would be worse for me to actually just blurt out something that might offend the person or people nearby.

As a general rule, I tend to be more diplomatic and cautious when dealing with unfamiliar people. People can be quite sensitive nowadays.

Jeruba's avatar

As far as I’m concerned, sarcasm is by definition mean-spirited and intended at least to sting, if not to do grievous injury. It can no more be a harmless jest than stabbing someone with an icepick can be a harmless jest, no matter how lightly you stab.

Facetiousness can be used in fun. Irony can be light-hearted. All sarcasm is aggressive and hostile, intended in some way to tear the other person down. I can never understand why anyone seems pleased to call himself or herself sarcastic.

[ Edited to add definition. ]

Response moderated (Unhelpful)
chocolatechip's avatar


That may be the definition of sarcasm, but the manner in which sarcasm is used is not aggressive or hostile. See teasing, for example.

Mom2BDec2010's avatar

It depends on the tone the person said it in to me. But if they grinned I would think they were just teasing.

augustlan's avatar

I think it can depend on the recipient’s perception. I tend to assume benevolence, and take pretty much everything in stride. So, to me, sarcasm seems generally harmless until proven otherwise.

Austinlad's avatar

I inherited a sarcastic wit from my dad—probably not his best gift to me. While I usually mean a “wisecrack” to get a laugh, sometimes it unintentionally stings the hapless recipient. I also sometimes employ sarcasm to avoid saying something I don’t have the nerve to be direct about. That’s gotten me in the doghouse more than once, so I try, especially in the workplace, to keep my biting humor as toothless as possible. I wish I could be more successful at that—I know sarcasm can be very hurtful. (By the way, I, myself, take sarcasm very badly, owing to how brutal my dad could be.)

BarnacleBill's avatar

I’m not seeing “yeah, right” as sarcasm. They are calling your bluff. They know, and you know, that “possibly” means “no” 95% of the time, but you’re diplomatically avoiding coming off like a jerk by saying no outright. By saying “possibly” or “I’ll consider it”, you’re dangling the person, and people don’t like being dangled.

Someone did this to me last night. I purchased tickets to a concert two months ago, asked someone if they could go with me, and they said “probably.” I checked with them several times, in the ensuing time period, and got the same “probably.” Last night was the concert, and when I talked to them Sunday night to arrange the time to meet, they said they didn’t think they could go on Monday because they were tired. Meanwhile, I’m out $50 for a ticket, and scrambling around to find someone else to go with me on short notice. I asked them to pay for the ticket, and their response was, “I never really said I would go.”

As my grandmother would say, “Shit, or get off the pot.” Commit. Yes or no. If it’s not a yes, it’s a no.

picante's avatar

Sarcasm is the ugly first cousin of [fill in the blank]. Nuff said – it’s ugly.

A quick wit, in my mind, is a hallmark of intelligence. Sarcasm is quick wit gone horribly wrong. Alas, one of my best friends, sharp as they come, uses sarcasm as a first response.

Early on, I let this go – there were times when I genuinely thought a response “creative” – almost a double entendre, leaving me with a bit of a puzzle to solve. Over the years, it has worn me down. I can almost anticipate the sarcastic response and brace myself before it even hits.

I’ve spent too many days, weeks, months, years replaying some of those and still trying to pull something good from those remarks.

@Jeruba, I very much appreciate your delineation of sarcasm and facetiousness. Great observation. @Austinlad, I’m sorry your father trained you to spend so many days in the doghouse. Maybe it’s time for a new trick.

GeorgeGee's avatar

Sarcasm is like jabbing a pen knife into someone buttocks… there’s no friendly way to do it.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

It depends upon the tone of the “Yeah, sure” answer. Let’s say that a co-worker asks for assistance with a project, or a friend asks you to dinner, and you gave a “Possibly” or “I’ll consider it” response. Maybe you want to check with your supervisor or SO first before committing.

A “Yeah, sure” response would be fine if it was said sincerely. If it sounded sarcastic, maybe they’ve been burned before, like in @BarnacleBill ‘s example, or maybe they have heard from someone else that you tend to be non-committal.

CMaz's avatar

sarcasm is always mean spirited.
Sometimes, it is just more sugar coated.

A good tickle needs a good pinch. ;-)

mowens's avatar

Speaking as a very sarcastic person, nothing that comes out of my mouth is serious. I only make fun of people I like… it is sort of like a mental sparing match. If I don’t like someone, I only talk when it is needed.

CMaz's avatar

“Speaking as a very sarcastic person, nothing that comes out of my mouth is serious.”

That is like saying even though I like to burn down my neighbors homes. I only burn down the homes of people I like.
I am not an arsonist. lol :-)

Sarcasm is a way you bluntly get a rise out of someone by attacking them via the back door.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

@mowens Can you please provide an example of a sarcastic remark that was meant in jest?

El_Cadejo's avatar

@mowens I am the same way, extremely sarcastic but I mean it in a lighthearted joking manner. If im trying to be mean its very evident, but 99% of my sarcasm is fun and most know it especially those who know me.

@Pied_Pfeffer Its all in the way you say it, not necessarily the words that are said.

Kardamom's avatar

Sarcasm is for people who can’t think of anything truly witty or intelligent to say. I think it’s often used as a defense mechanism. People use sarcasm to bite first before they get bitten. Teenaged boys tend to use sarcasm because they know it will get a reaction from people, a shocked reaction. They’re too immature to realize or care that they may have hurt or offended someone, but it makes them feel like they have some power. When people feel powerless they either turn inward, or they direct their anger outward, sometimes in the form of sarcasm.

mowens's avatar

@uberbatman Sure. I tell my friend Eric everything is his fault, no matter what it is.
I called my friend Matt fat on a daily basis when I worked with him.
At my old job, they called me Captain Fail because I am uncoordinated and drop things.
I also called Matt stupid on a daily basis… as a matter of fact…. no conversation between me and my friend Matt read on paper would ever seem like we were friends, but we still hang out 5 years after having worked with eachother.

I called my friend Ben a waste of sperm… that is my favorite insult I have ever come up with. We also… still hang out after having had worked together.

You just have fun with it…. if they make fun of you, make fun of them right back. Also… make fun of yourself. ALWAYS make fun of yourself. I used to be all upset when people made fun of me. But they are just words my friend.

It’s like martial arts… take the power that they used against you to take them down with you. Don’t be so uptight!!!!

In the movie Grand Turino, Clint Eastwood takes the kid into a barber shop to learn how men talk to eachother. That is a very valuable lesson. It is on youtube, but I cannot get there from here. :(

El_Cadejo's avatar

im kinda annoyed with how many people think sarcasm is always mean spirited and a cop out/defense mechanism. People need to chill the fuck out and realize not everything in life is to be taken seriously.

mowens's avatar

Whoops that should have been @Pied_Pfeffer

mowens's avatar

Also, the novel I wrote on the question I will link below, also applies here…. just seems cheesy to copy and paste it.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

@mowens Thank you for sharing, as that helped. I look at your well-written examples and can envision being there and hearing the banter between you and your friends.

Maybe it is just a matter of semantics on my part. The ones you provided sound more like facetiousness to me. You all are buddies and understand the hidden meaning behind the words, while a person on the outside might misinterpret it.

Sarcasm, on the other hand, is often delivered in innocent words, but the tone implies the silent “You Dummy” at the end of the statement. Here is an example:

You: “I just won $100,000 in the lottery. Do you think I should cash the check and store the money in a shoe-box in the backyard?”
Me: “Yeah, that’s a brilliant idea (you dummy)” < sarcasm
– or -
Me: “You were a waste of sperm. No, you dummy. Put it in your home safe or take it to the bank.” < facetious
– or -
Me: “You could do that. An other option is to protect it from water damage and decay. Don’t you have a hidden safe in your house? Or what about depositing it in your account at the bank?” < polite

Jeruba's avatar

People who can’t tell the difference between light-hearted banter and sarcasm irritate me. A person who dislikes being jabbed with a sharp stick is not necessarily a person who minds being touched. Sarcasm stings and isn’t pleasant; it’s at someone’s expense. Objecting to it does not mean you are humorless. If it’s innocent, well-intentioned humor, it isn’t sarcasm.

El_Cadejo's avatar

@Jeruba I disagree, things can be said in an extremely sarcastic tone without being mean spirited or does that suddenly not make it sarcasm anymore?

chocolatechip's avatar

@Jeruba Light-hearted banter can include the use of sarcasm. Example:

Person A: Things would be a lot better if I was in charge. When I graduate, I’m going to join a paramilitary organization and stage a coup! (jokingly)

Person B: Yeah, sure you are.

Sarcasm is like verbal playfighting. Intent is everything. Two kids wrestling might seem hostile to an observer, but the kids know its just innocent fun.

lonelydragon's avatar

I have a problem with this, too, OP. In your example, the answer depends on the smile. Was the person smiling in a friendly way, or did they have a malicious glint in their eyes?

weeveeship's avatar

@lonelydragon See, since I just met the guy, I really have no idea.

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