Keep Two Thoughts

Personal essays

Sarcasm - Essay from Newsletter 28

On not using it

Battling the internet

I was set to write about something else today and then I woke up and made the mistake of catching up on the way-too-many tweets in my timeline first.

Someone said something I thought was catty and mean. I quietly commented that there’s “No need to be mean.” And I unfollowed the poster.

Within moments - because it’s the internet - several people replied that they had read his tweet that way too but on rereading realized that wasn’t what he meant.

So good news: that wasn’t what he meant.

Also, many of us misunderstood what he had meant.

It reminded me of a boss who I thought had been overly controlling but ended up teaching me a lot about communication.

Humor is difficult

When I was in radio (again, ask an older person what radio is - or was), I had a boss who had lots of rules.

One of them was to not talk about “I”, talk about “we” instead.

The woman who was on before me rolled her eyes and went on the air to talk about how “we” had sat out in the sun too long and gotten burnt and “our” husband had to rub oil on “our” backs.

Clearly, that wasn’t what the boss meant but the jocks all had a good laugh at her response.

When I started at the station he told me not to laugh so much on the air. I had a great time working in radio and would often laugh at something that amused me.

After we worked together a while he came back to the studio one day and said, “go ahead”.

He was getting regular calls and feedback from listeners that they liked my choice of music better than the other jocks.

What does that have to do with laughing?

Well, we all played the same music. It was chosen by a computer and then the boss would do a quick pass to make sure we weren’t playing a certain artist too much or two similar songs too close together. But we all played the same music.

Me having a good time meant the listener would often have a good time and enjoy the music more.

“But,” he said, as he had said to all of us, “don’t tell jokes.”

Some portion of your audience will think you’re being sarcastic. They’ll think you’re making fun of them and being mean.


So back to my tweet about not being mean.

Most of the people responding were nice and, as I said, just pointed out that they had read it that way too at first.

One woman responded that the original poster “is being sarcastic. Try it sometime. It’s funny.”

I did try it.

I used to be very sarcastic.

It hurt people’s feelings so I have (mostly) stopped.

Here’s what encouraged me to stop.

When Elena was six she used to say very mean things and then look at us and say, “What?” She’d then make air-quotes and say, “sarcasm!”

She’d say, “Dad, you’re really fat.”


Air quotes, “sarcasm”.

We tried to explain to her that that’s not what sarcasm is. You can’t just say mean things and make them not be mean by adding, “sarcasm”.

But she was six.

So, I thought, maybe that is what sarcasm is. You are saying really mean things and masking it in a joke - but the mean thing still lands. Maybe I should stop modeling it for her.

You have to be in the right frame to receive sarcasm appropriately. You have to have some sort of shared context and a safe space. We don’t have the luxury to absorb sarcasm.

People are raw right now. Now is the time to be kind to others and to surround yourself with people who are kind to you.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 28. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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