“As a possession for either man or woman, a ready smile is more valuable in life than a ready wit,” wrote Emily Post in her timeless, and ever more timely, advice on etiquette. And yet, when we have the choice between these options, showing off our wit tends to take priority. Sarcastic remarks and cynical responses continue to make up a larger part of our conversations, often to the detriment of understanding and connection.
Stop and consider the last time you gave a sarcastic response. Or the last time you made a cynical comment to someone. Did it help the situation? Did it move the conversation forward productively? Or did you just manage to say something that you later came to regret?
We rarely resort to sarcasm when everything is going well. There’s little reason to adopt a cynic’s views when you’re in a great mood. Instead, we use these as defense mechanisms. We bring them out when we feel as though we’re under attack. When we feel angry, or hurt, or resentful, but don’t have the courage – or the words – to say what we really want to say.
Except they’re not good defense mechanisms. And they rarely help us say what we really want to say.
For one, they’re negative. They don’t help us move forward in a positive way. While our culture has, unfortunately, created systems that reward people for tearing down others rather than building them up, this success will always have a short half-life. In the long run, it’s not possible to maintain the respect of others – at least others that matter – by tearing down ideas instead of contributing solutions.
But they’re also a sign of cowardice. We make sarcastic cracks when we have something that we want to say, but we’re too afraid to say it. So we hold back. We make a passive aggressive remark in the hopes that we can make our point while still giving ourselves an escape route. This limits our vulnerability, but it also limits our ability to communicate – and to grow. As Caitlyn Moran wrote,
“Cynicism is, ultimately, fear. Cynicism makes contact with your skin, and a thick black carapace begins to grow — like insect armor. This armor will protect your heart, from disappointment — but it leaves you almost unable to walk. You cannot dance in this armor. Cynicism keeps you pinned to the spot, in the same posture, forever.”
The point of any feedback is to drive a constructive change. So there’s little use in offering your thoughts in a manner that won’t deliver on that purpose. With that intent, cutting back on sarcasm is easy enough – it largely comes down to six simple steps.
Step 1: Recognize Your Triggers
Fyodor Dostoevsky described sarcasm as “the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded.” Less eloquently, we fall into the habit of sarcasm when we feel threatened, when we’re put on the defensive.
And it’s often just that – a habit. It’s not a strategic response or one we’ve thought out rationally, it’s a default reaction based on circumstances.
And the key to controlling any reaction starts with understanding what triggers it in the first place. Only then can you replace it with a more productive response.
When do you find yourself being sarcastic? What typically causes you to lash out with a cynical response?
Embarrassment? Frustration? Anger? Boredom? All of the above?
There’s no universal reason. But there will be a reason. And once you recognize the situations that bring out this behavior, it’s much easier to be on guard for them.
Step 2: Imagine That Your Responses are Captured and Published
I’m lucky to have grown up in the 80s and 90s, before every interaction could be easily recorded and saved for the rest of time. Today, every tweet, post, comment, and text can be saved and broadcast around the world in seconds. As Kevin Kelly wrote,
” The internet is a copy machine…Once anything that can be copied is brought into contact with internet, it will be copied, and those copies never leave. Even a dog knows you can’t erase something once it’s flowed on the internet.”
Ideally, this is a good thing. You want your work to be copied and spread. You want your words to reach the far corners of the world. But it also creates a serious liability for misunderstanding and overreactions – one that the majority of people on social media seem intent on not learning.
The main lesson is that we should all be mindful of the legacy we create for ourselves. We should all remember to take that extra moment and consider how our words will come across to others.
And decide whether that will make us proud, or regretful.
Reducing sarcastic and cynical remarks follows this same mindset. It relies on taking a moment to consider how our words will come across to others. And whether we’ll regret that impact or be happy with it. In the words of Steven Covey,
“The key to being proactive is remembering that between stimulus and response, there is a space. That space represents our choice – how we will choose to respond to any given situation, person, thought, or event.”
Imagine if every response, every statement you make, will be broadcast online. Will people understand your real intentions? Would your message be clear? And would you be happy to stand behind it?
Step 3: Respond Mindfully
“Mindfulness isn’t difficult, we just need to remember to do it.” – Sharon Salzberg
The purpose of responding is to influence behavior. Whether it’s present or future actions, the reason you communicate is so people will do or think something.
So it’s important to make sure that the words you use reinforce their intended purpose.
As you find yourself in these trigger situations, practice responding more mindfully. Ask yourself, what behaviors are you trying to influence with these words? What are you trying to encourage or discourage? And does your response have that effect?
Do you want to help someone understand why they’re wrong? And show them a better way going forward? Or do you just want them to feel bad about themselves?
Treat the words you say like currency. Make sure you’re getting your money’s worth.
Step 4: Make a Daily Positive Challenge to Lift Someone Up
“When we say something that nourishes us and uplifts the people around us, we are feeding love and compassion. When we speak and act in a way that causes tension and anger, we are nourishing violence and suffering.” – Thích Nhất Hạnh, The Art of Communicating
One of the easiest ways to stop a bad habit is to replace it with a better one. And there’s few better antidotes to sarcasm and cynicism than gratitude and empathy.
Give yourself a daily challenge to show someone your appreciation. Or taking the time to lift someone up with encouragement.
It’s difficult to remain sarcastic and cynical while showing gratitude. This simple act creates a positive feedback loop that can turn around even the worst of days. As Brainpickings author Maria Konnikova advised Penn graduates in a 2016 commencement address,
“Choose to lift people up, not to lower them down – because it is a choice, always, and because in doing so you lift yourself up.”
Step 5: Develop a System to Hold Yourself Accountable
When author and human experimenter A.J. Jacobs was struggling to improve his eating habits, he told his wife that if he didn’t stop snacking, she was to make a donation in his name to a white supremiscist organization.
The thought of having his money contribute to this cause made him so sick with disgust, he was able to cut out unhealthy snacks. Imagine taking a bite of a cookie, knowing that that bite resulted in $100 of your hard-earned money going to an organization that you despise.
We’re able to stick with changes when we have (1) something or someone to hold us accountable, and (2) a tangible negative consequence that outweighs the positive benefit of the habit.
With sarcasm and cynicism, we often don’t see the immediate impact of our words. Without this clear consequence, it’s easy to rationalize away the impact. Artificially creating this consequence provides an immediate negative reinforcement – one that helps motivate you to take that pause before responding.
So tell people that you’re trying to improve. Encourage them to hold you accountable. And give yourself an incentive to make sure you consider your words more carefully.
Step 6: Step Back and Self Assess Regularly
“Make haste slowly.” –Benjamin Franklin
Remember that if you use sarcasm as a defense mechanism, it’s an ingrained habit that will be difficult to break. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be perfect right away.
The key is to maintain positive progress. Keep working at it each day. And set up a time to regularly assess how well you’re doing.
At least once a week, sit down and reflect on how you’re coming across to others. Do your words reflect your genuine meaning? Are you being mindful of trigger situations? When you have the opportunity, are you choosing to lift people up, or put them down?
And remind yourself why you wanted to improve your behavior in the first place. As Buddhist nun Pema Chodron put it,
“The essence of bravery is being without self-deception.”
Start Reducing Your Sarcasm Today
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
Sarcasm and cynicism don’t leave people feeling better. They rarely move us collectively forward. And they seldom succeed in making the point that we wanted to make.
The solution is to adopt more mindful communication. Recognize the triggers that put you in a defensive state and make a conscious decision to communicate in a positive, respectful manner, regardless of the situation.
Taking the time to be mindful of your response helps slow things down. It lets you recognize when your emotions are causing you to say something that you’ll later come to regret. And it reminds you that at the end of the day, lifting people up is much more rewarding than putting them down.