Skip to main content

Society’s opinion of sarcasm is often mixed – while some view it as unfriendly and even offensive, others appreciate the wit it requires. Oscar Wilde was once quoted saying that it is the ‘highest form of intelligence’ and researchers reveal he may be right on the mark!

Let’s be honest, there is no shortage of sarcasm in today’s society. In fact, many would argue that it’s the unofficial language of the internet, prevalent in the many memes and satire websites that dominate our social media accounts. Despite its incredible prevalence today, most relationship counselors and communication experts would advise that it should be used sparingly, if at all, due to its potential of being misinterpreted or hurting the feelings of those that we are communicating with.

A study carried out by Harvard Business School, Columbia Business School, and INSEAD, the European business school, came to a very different conclusion. Working to better understand the finer details of the art of sarcasm, the team found that it may actually benefit those who embrace it, offering both psychological and organizational benefits in their lives. In short, they believe that sarcasm can make a person smarter.

“To create or decode sarcasm, both the expressers and recipients of sarcasm need to overcome the contradiction (i.e., psychological distance) between the literal and actual meanings of the sarcastic expressions. This is a process that activates and is facilitated by abstraction, which in turn promotes creative thinking,” explained Francesco Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School and one of the authors on the study.

Participants were divided into one of three different groups, assigned a label as sarcastic, sincere or neutral. They were then involved in a series of simulated conversations in which they were required to express or receive comments based on the label that they were provided. Following the conversations, they were asked to complete a Remote Association Task. During this task, they were shown a word or phrase and asked to provide a word or phrase that they believe would have a logical connection. Their answers were then assessed for creativity, expression and abstract thinking.

The result? Those who experienced more sarcasm before the task provided more abstract and creative answers, pushing the boundaries, than those who didn’t experience sarcasm. It wasn’t all good, don’t let go of your concerns regarding the right ‘time and place’ for sarcasm just yet. Those from the ‘sarcasm’ label conversations were also found to express more tension than the other participants.

“While sarcasm in a non-trusting relationship fuels conflict, sarcasm in a trusting relationship is less harmful and may even bring individuals closer,” the study states. In short, you should reserve your sarcastic comments for conversations with close friends and family members rather than openly using it in public settings if you are hoping to avoid offending or upsetting the people around you. It can also be used effectively in workplace settings as long as it is reserved for co-workers that you have established a trusting relationship with.

“We hope our research will inspire organizations and communication coaches to take a renewed look at sarcasm,” Gino concluded. “Instead of discouraging workplace sarcasm completely as they have been doing, they could help educate individuals about the appropriate circumstances under which sarcasm can be used. By doing so, both the individuals involved in sarcastic conversations and the organizations they belong to would benefit creatively.”

Image via Odyssey