April 2, 2016

Sarcasm: Are Expressers Well-Adjusted and Recipients Fortunate?

This was a draft I sent Stanley, my editor, for Friday's post:
In yesterday's post, I talked about a major Harvard University study has been going on for 70 years and has involved intense work tracking the lives of two groups of men just a few years older than me. A recent Ted talk summarized the important, interesting findings about the importance of close friendships as we age.

Today's topic concerns another Harvard study, a joint effort with Columbia University. It deals with the subject of much more limited scope and interest. I wouldn't be reporting on it, except that it gives me a great response to the frequent criticism I get, particularly from one of my nearest and dearest, about my addiction to put-down humor. 
I immediately decided to prepare this post on the study when the report  I was reading cited these findings:
  • People who use sarcasm are more creative and psychologically well-adjusted than others. 
  • Sarcastic humor is employed by people with high intellects. 
  • Liberal use of sarcastic comments can help lift the IQs of the less intellectually well-endowed recipients of the sarcasm. (Of course I particularly loved that last finding!)
Stanley replied, asking if I really wanted to run this study recap without commenting on the downside of sarcasm and put-down humor.

Since I also had some misgivings about this, I decided to do some further checking. When I went to Google, I found several links to stories in the popular press. All of them basically used the same pitch on the findings of this study that I featured above. Here's the concluding comment from one of them:
But what does all this mean for everyday communication? If you enjoy a bit of snark then the findings are truly liberating. Instead of having to hold back those razor sharp quips and withering barbs out of fear of hurting your loved ones’ feelings, you are now free to let rip, safe in the knowledge that you are helping them to become smarter and more creative!
I tried to find the text of the official report but it was available only at a steep price. Fortunately, I found a summary of the report written by the authors. Here is what it concludes:
Given the risks and benefits of sarcasm, your best bet is to keep salty remarks limited to conversations with those you know well, lest you offend others—even as you potentially help them think more creatively.
The authors also caution that -- even when using sarcasm with a trusted friend -- your tone and the context could make the remarks damaging.

Here's an example of the creative and non-damaging use of sarcasm in a conversation one of the co-authors had a few weeks before he was to be married:
His fiancée woke him up as he was soundly asleep at night to tell him about some new ideas she has for their upcoming wedding next month – many of which were quite expensive. Adam responded with some ideas of his own: “Why don’t we get Paul McCartney to sing, Barack Onama to give a benediction and Amy Schumer to entertain people?” His comment required his fiancée to recognize that there is a distinction between the surface level meaning of the sentence (actually signing up these people to perform) and the meaning that was intended.
These cautionary comments about sarcasm by the study'a authors are very different from the laudatory spin found in the reports on the study in the mainstream media. The popular media took a few of the study's findings out of context to create headline-grabbing stories to the effect that sarcasm is used by the more intelligent, creative and well-adjusted people, and that the less intellectually endowed  recipients of the sarcasm should just listen up and learn from it.

I was about to join in this parade of lemmings. Thank you, Stanley, for raising the caution flag.

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