Effective Communication

The Surprising Benefits of Using Sarcasm at Work

sarcasm

Sarcasm is not something that’s easily practiced by the uninitiated. Aimed at the wrong target, it can be perceived as derogatory. When used inappropriately, it can be hurtful, create conflict, and mock people. Used in the right way, however, sarcasm can spark creative thinking in yourself and others.

Sarcasm requires abstract thinking, which makes it a catalyst for innovation. It challenges the brain because you have to look beyond an explicit statement to interpret the true meaning. Often, a sarcastic comment means exactly the opposite of what is said. The way the message is conveyed changes the meaning.

“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence.” – Oscar Wilde

A Workout for Your Brain

In 2016, researchers from Harvard University, Columbia University, and INSEAD randomly exposed study participants to either sincere, neutral, or sarcastic remarks and then asked them to perform creativity tests. The study, called “The highest form of intelligence: Sarcasm increases creativity for both expressers and recipients,” showed that people in a sarcastic environment performed more creatively than those working in a sincere or neutral environment.

Why does this phenomenon happen? Scientists monitoring brain activity explain that the brain has to work harder to understand sarcastic comments. It can stimulate complex thinking as the brain works to decode an implied message—thereby boosting cognitive function. However, there is one notable caveat: sarcasm only works when the recipient of the message is in on the joke.

The Key to Using Sarcasm Effectively

How do you know if it’s appropriate to use sarcasm in any given situation? The key underlying factor is trust.

Think about this scenario. Someone you trust and respect hits you with a sarcastic remark. Even if it stings a bit, you probably won’t get upset. However, if someone you dislike and don’t trust said the same thing, their comment might seem upsetting to you. It’s not just about the words that are said or the tone the speaker uses—it’s also important to consider the source of the comment.

“Our studies show that, given the same content and tone, sarcasm expressed toward or received from someone we trust is less conflict-provoking than sarcasm expressed toward or received from someone we distrust.” – Francisco Gino, a researcher who performed the study “The highest form of intelligence: Sarcasm increases creativity for both expressers and recipients”

Where trust exists, sarcasm can stimulate conversation and lighten the mood. A clever turn of phrase or sarcastic remark can be a unifying and enjoyable experience. It can bring team members closer together and even diffuse tension in uncomfortable situations.

Tips on How to Use Sarcasm Productively

1. Timing is everything.

Any comedian will tell you the secret to being funny is to have excellent timing. The same principle applies to sarcasm. Read the room: Evaluate the emotions of the people around you before you crack a joke. If you’re sarcastic during a crisis or when there’s a lot at stake (for example, during a performance review), it could come across as dismissive or callous.

2. Choose the target carefully.

You also don’t want to make others the butt of the joke. Try to keep your sense of humour from becoming too personal. Getting a laugh at someone else’s expense can make other people uncomfortable—or even prompt a complaint to HR. Aimed at the wrong person, a sarcastic comment can look like a veiled attempt at hostility.

Self-deprecating humour, on the other hand, is more disarming and inclusive. It injects humour into a situation and can signal humility. It might even help people relate to you better and inspire trust.

Sarcasm3. Don’t put it in writing.

Be careful how you deliver a sarcastic comment. The same study that examined the connection between sarcasm and creativity also compared how participants responded after reading a sarcastic statement and hearing it. Half the test subjects received a mix of sincere and sarcastic statements via voice recordings. The other half read the same comments in an email. About 73% of the people who heard the recordings accurately picked up on the speaker’s sarcasm. But only 56% of the readers knew if an email was sarcastic or sincere.

4. Use moderation.

Too much of anything is a problem. If you’re sarcastic all the time, your coworkers could think you’re being defensive or deflecting away from topics you don’t want to discuss. They might also believe you have low self-esteem, especially if you often use self-deprecating humour too frequently.

Use sarcasm in moderation to avoid any misconceptions and cultivate an atmosphere of trust.

A Final Word of Advice

There’s a fine line between sarcasm that’s divisive and sarcasm that can spur creativity and team-building. But if you follow these tips and emphasise clarity in all your communications, there’s no reason not to introduce a little humour into your management style. Check in with your coworkers routinely to make sure everyone’s on the same page and feels comfortable in the office. And, as with any collaborative environment, make sure your coworkers feel valued and respected.


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About the Author

As one of the world's leading and largest graduate business schools, INSEAD offers participants a truly global educational experience. With campuses in Europe (France), Asia (Singapore) and Middle East (United Arab Emirates), INSEAD's business education and research spans three continents. The school’s 145 renowned faculty members from 40 countries inspire more than 1,400 students in its degree and PhD programmes. In addition, more than 11,000 executives participate in INSEAD's executive education programmes each year. INSEAD’s EMBA programmes are highly ranked by Financial Times, and ranked #1 by Ivy Exec in 2018.