What Your Sarcastic Employee Isn't Telling You
By Vanessa Van Petten
There's always someone in the office who is the "class clown" who gets everyone's spirits up by jokingly putting one person down. Sarcastically, of course. So it's not really mean behavior then, right? However, new research reveals that sarcasm is merely thinly-veiled meanness, a way of covering contempt or hate because the person making the pun believes their words are less hurtful than their victim thinks.
Sarcasm is not only hurtful, it is also the least genuine mode of communication. Moderate the sarcastic team member in your office by discovering the true reason for the constant comments-even if that person is you. Sarcasm is usually sourced from:
- Insecurity. Whenever someone adopts a sarcastic tone, try to gauge if they're feeling insecure about something. For some, using sarcasm or teasing is a way of avoiding confrontation because they are afraid of asking for what they want. If a mother says to her son,"You look like a mountain man with that beard; your Grandma will barely recognize you," is there a request hidden somewhere in there?
- Latent Anger. Sarcasm can also be a passive aggressive way to assert dominance. Someone who is both upset and afraid to discuss the reason for their anger will often use sarcasm as a disguised barb. A wife might say to her husband who forgot to take out the trash, "You'd think we're living like lazy trash beetles with the way this kitchen looks!"
- Social Awkwardness. When people aren't good at reading those around them, or aren't sure how to carry on a conversation, they will often employ sarcasm and hope it sounds playful or affectionate. This is just another kind of insecurity, but you will often hear loners at parties or networking events use sarcasm as an attempt to lighten the mood or bond. Unfortunately it tends to have the opposite effect - teasees tend to rate sarcastic incidents as malicious and annoying. Mentioning a comment like,"This buffet spread is pretty weak, guess it mirrors this company's portfolio, huh?" may not be the best way to stand out at a networking event.
What can you do if you have someone sarcastic in your work environment? If you're okay with being direct, send them a link to this article or post it on Facebook and see if they get the loud hint.
Otherwise, try a "genuine approach" by taking everything they say as a genuine comment without the sarcastic tone. For example, when someone recently said to me with sarcasm, "I can barely recognize you with all of that makeup on!" I responded with genuine concern: "Oh wow, really? Do you think people have trouble realizing that it's me?"
She quickly became flustered and said something along the lines of, "Well it's not that I couldn't recognize you...I mean it was...well...oh, never mind." After a few rounds of banter where I repeatedly applied the "genuine approach," we eventually started to have a real conversation and make genuine comments-which we received warmly and with encouragement.
Though lighthearted sarcasm can be fun, a workplace should encourage genuine communication. Do you have a coworker who is trying to cover something up with sarcasm?
Vanessa Van Petten, author of Science of People, specializes in social and emotional intelligence research and development. The focus of her company is to research youth behavior and help adults keep up with young adults. She is a member of The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only nonprofit organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs.
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