How to deal with over-the-top sardonic, witty coworker?
August 9, 2011 6:14 AM   Subscribe

So I work with pretty much this guy (really, it's almost spot-on). It's wearing me down. I've tried to engage with him earnestly in the hope that he'll let his guard down a bit, but it doesn't get me very far. Any ideas about how to cope with him? My two options at this point seems to be avoiding him as much as possible or engaging on "his level" and beating him verbally to submission. Neither option holds much appeal for me, but neither does the current situation.
posted by Harald74 to Human Relations (32 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You say, "stop being a negative dickhead."
posted by coryinabox at 6:16 AM on August 9, 2011

Send him that link.
posted by secretseasons at 6:23 AM on August 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

When he starts talking about a subject, stop him, tell him what you think he's going to say (all the negative stuff). If he says he was going to talk about something positive instead, be all happy (and congratulatory as this is his reward for acting nice) and apologize and indicate how his usual stuff is so negative.
posted by maxpower at 6:35 AM on August 9, 2011

"what do you like?"
posted by nadawi at 6:36 AM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Two possible courses of action:

1) Learn to view him with pity and detachment
2) If you have any talent for sardonicness (sardonicity?) yourself, try to top him with even more over-the-top comments, and see how far you can get him to go with it ("agree" with his sardonic comments, I mean, don't make sardonic comments about things you think he might care about).

Neither of these "draw him out" but eh, he's probably not a very interesting guy and he's just your coworker, he doesn't have to be your friend.
posted by mskyle at 6:39 AM on August 9, 2011

Reply with variations of "Well sure it's easy to make fun/put that down/dismiss this, but do you have any constructive comments?"
posted by oddman at 6:50 AM on August 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Respond, flatly, with, "Why yes, that is the most (repeat subject of his rant); how remarkable." every time. He should get the hint.
posted by scruss at 6:50 AM on August 9, 2011

If you want to get at his core and rattle him, you'd need to be even better than him at mind games. Seeing your question, you seem just exasperated, whereas he seems to be training his skills on a continuous level.

Maybe a healthy "you know what? Don't say it!" is better for your mind's rest than engaging with him at all. (Or you could, like in "Lost", beat him at table tennis and the prize is "only positive comments for a week"...)
posted by Namlit at 6:52 AM on August 9, 2011

Whenever he throws snark, disengage. Don't challenge him or give him more bait. Just respond with "Mm." or "Okay." or don't respond at all. Another option is an unemotional "that's sort of mean-spirited" with no further comment.

He'll eventually realize that his brilliant snot isn't as impressive as he thinks, and back off. Or he'll just think you're kind of boring and find someone else to bullshit with. Either way you'll get less of it.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:56 AM on August 9, 2011 [8 favorites]

Someone this socially clueless might not realize how maladaptive his behavior is, I think. Maybe say to him something like: "I find your sense of humor difficult to relate to. I don't have any problem with you as a person, but your commentary on every little thing you see seems very negative to me and it makes me uncomfortable. I want to be your friend and I'm having trouble getting past this." Then, if he has any decency, he'll examine himself and try to tone it down, or he'll continue being obnoxious and you can just ignore him.
posted by clockzero at 6:58 AM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I watched a whole bunch of Aaron Sorkin TV shows awhile ago, and one thing I noticed is that all of his characters, when someone else says something really off-the-wall or that they otherwise don't want to engage with, just say, "OK" and then say whatever they were going to say anyway. I have found this surprisingly useful in my life! It's like a weird little acknowledgement that's not really an acknowledgment or engagement, and its kind of ambiguous--it can mean, "I heard you," or it can mean, "What an odd thing to say. Let's just pretend it didn't happen." But it seems to pretty effectively signal, "I heard you but I'm just not going to get into that with you right now."
posted by not that girl at 7:07 AM on August 9, 2011 [8 favorites]

This is funny because The Onion is basically the website version of that guy.

I don't know your guy, of course, but there are a bunch of reason why people do that. Maybe he's overcompensating for people not liking him (if only he could be even funnier, then all the other kids would play with him). Maybe he used to be really serious and people nagged him about it all the time, and this is the only way he knows of being non-serious.

I think if you say something to him directly it has a large chance of backfiring horribly. Depending on his reasons for acting this way, if you make him more socially anxious he's going to overcompensate even more... and so on.

I think the best thing to do is some really subtle reinforcement. Disengage (gently) when he gets too intense and give lots and lots of positive reinforcement when he's anything other than sardonic (including when he's just flat/serious). Nod, smile, "wow, that's really interesting", hell, give him a mint.
posted by anaelith at 7:07 AM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm afraid I've got to suggest simply walking away and/or avoid conversations involving him in the first place. Almost any kind of response is rewarding him with the attention he's seeking. If you respond with something about how mean-spirited or unfunny his comment was, he'll merely focus his snark on you, and how YOU have 'no sense of humor.' I doubt he's correctable, and your best bet is to merely reduce your interaction with him as much as possible.

(If he asks WHY you're avoiding him --- but I doubt he'll even notice! --- go ahead and tell him that you honestly find his brand of "humor" hurtful and unfunny.)
posted by easily confused at 7:11 AM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

You work with him--do not engage him on any topic but work, ever. Don't spend any time with him, remove him entirely from your mental space. He's not your friend and it doesn't sound like you want him to be.

Polite "good morning, Phil" and nothing else unless it's work related. If he asks you about your weekend, say "Fine, Phil." and either ask about work or excuse yourself to get back to work. Life is too short to engage with unpleasant people and really, work is taking up enough of your life without adding this jerk to it.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: "All you need to do is be polite. You don't need to worry that you are offending someone by being polite, if distant, and not prolonging your interactions with them. Everyone is not everyone else's friend, particularly not at work." Just disengage from this guy and forget it.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:17 AM on August 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Someone sent me this.

I've since toned down the snark.
posted by Gucky at 7:48 AM on August 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

I've had a couple of fairly good relationships with people like this guy, largely because I've been able to treat their crabbiness as an endearing character trait rather than as something I engage with. It doesn't work with someone who is actually mean, but someone who doesn't know how to be liked or is poor at reading conversational cues often responds well to this.

I respond with an "I hear you" type comment to actual complaints, I tease people about their perpetual negativity ("Oh but Phil, everything is alienated labor to you!"), I respond extremely literally to passive-aggressive requests ("I wonder how we could get this scanning done?" "Well, there's a scanner in 12-10, or you could send one of the students over to Kinko's.") I gently make fun of them in a friendly way ("Lily, you know Phil doesn't like popular movies!") Sometimes these guys are happy to have a place in the group but don't need everyone to agree with them; if everyone says "Yes, Phil belongs, he's our film snob!" then they feel secure and happy.
posted by Frowner at 7:50 AM on August 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think the response you may be looking for is:

(wait a few beats, turn to rest of co-workers) "So, anyway....."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:09 AM on August 9, 2011

I think all you can do is disengage.

I've worked with dozens of this guy. Short of delivering a convincing threat to kill him, nothing you can do or say will alter his behaviour even for a short time. (I mean, I assume that kind of threat would work, but I never tested the hypothesis because I didn't want to get in trouble.)

Just disengage and only talk about work. Do not wrestle with a pig. Really.
posted by tel3path at 8:11 AM on August 9, 2011

This is a man just begging to be ding trained.
posted by flabdablet at 8:22 AM on August 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

secretseasons: "Send him that link."

Maybe better, send him the link via It's anon.
posted by lampshade at 8:23 AM on August 9, 2011

seconding the Sorkin-esque OK mentioned above. SO useful.
posted by somanyamys at 8:40 AM on August 9, 2011

you can change your shorts, you can change your socks, you can change your appointment, but you can NOT change another person (nor do you have a right to)... ignore him.
posted by tomswift at 9:56 AM on August 9, 2011

When in doubt TROLL. Seriously. I tried it with my neighbor over her opinion of daycare at the advice of the hivemind and it *worked better than anything I've even done ever.* Now I use it in all sorts of situitations. Infact, now my SO gets all excited when we have a rude waiter and we end up laughing the whole ride home re-enacting the whole thing.
Not mean troll- you have to work with the guy-but troll none the less.
posted by Frosted Cactus at 10:01 AM on August 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

I used to be roommates with that guy. He got annoying real fast, and it was a shame because I was pretty sure there was a cool guy worth knowing underneath it all. I think that part of his problem was that anytime he was genuine to people, it ended up going sour for him in the relationship department. People seemed to respond to him better when his sarcastic wit and wry insight was all they knew about him. So it was mostly a defense mechanism, I guess.

I think you can hang out with him by combining two attitudes:

(1) Engage him on his level. I know that this is tough, because it sucks to be "on" all the time also, but you don't have to always be "on" with him. Just when you're in the mood. The problem with this is that it can become a battle of one-upmanship, and if he perceives you as competing with him, he'll just get worse. That's why you limit it. Because, on the flip-side, it's possible that he will greatly enjoy your company, as there is sometimes nothing more fun that having a buddy to wryly observe the world with, i.e., somebody that not only "gets" you, but also reciprocates.

(2) Become a connoisseur of his sense of humor. Laugh and compliment when it is funny, tell him he's off the mark other times, suggest improvements.

After that, play it by ear.

(Also, I'm kind of curious if your guy is a self-pitying weepy drunk like my guy was.)
posted by jabberjaw at 10:21 AM on August 9, 2011

I nickname people like this "little black rainclouds" and call them out if they're particularly chronic.

Group: *discussion about topic*
LBR: *negative, sarcastic opinion*
Me: Aw, who's being a little black raincloud? Poor baby, are you having a hard day?
LBR: No, I'm just expressing my opinion!
Me: You're raining all over everyone's fun. Do you need a cookie?

The trick is to put genuine goodwill behind it, and be unfailing cheerful to their replies. Sometimes people who are really negative need to have it pointed out to them before they see their pattern. When they realize their sourness impacts how people interpret their emotional mindset, they aren't as quick to go for the habitual negativity.

My roommate got nicknamed Eeyore as a kid, and this is how I handle him.
posted by griselda at 11:19 AM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

When he's talking like this, don't laugh, acknowledge, or otherwise engage. Just wait for him to stop talking, and then go on having the conversation without his annoying contribution. If he is more aggressive than that, there's no harm in saying "you know, you're awfully negative today. is something wrong?" They might be surprised to hear they're coming off as negative. Especially if another person pre-empts his response to you with "no, he's always like this."
posted by davejay at 11:24 AM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Well Sinead O'Rebellion. Shock me shock me shock me with that deviant behaviour!"
posted by dougrayrankin at 4:54 PM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you don't like that guy, why are you on Metafilter?

And yeah, either call him out or send him that link. He's probably already an Onion reader.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 4:56 PM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

A friend once cured a coworker of similar behavior with this:

"Gee Dave, it must be tough getting laid with an attitude like that."
posted by Wet Spot at 5:34 PM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

The trick is to put genuine goodwill behind it, and be unfailing cheerful to their replies. Sometimes people who are really negative need to have it pointed out to them before they see their pattern. When they realize their sourness impacts how people interpret their emotional mindset, they aren't as quick to go for the habitual negativity.

If some tries that 'little black raincloud' or 'stop being so emo' or whatever tack with me I either get more angry or more sullen.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:37 PM on August 9, 2011

Sounds like somebody has a case of the Mondays!
posted by flabdablet at 8:39 PM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for your replies, people!

As some of you have pointed out, his behaviour is probably due to him wanting to be a part of the conversation, but he probably uses his sarcasm and negativity as a shield. And that all day, every day is too much for me. I imagine it's tiring for him as well. I'll give positive and negative reinforcement one more go, and just ignore him if there is no progress. He's not a bad person, really, but he's sapping my enjoyment of life.

Even if there are no silver bullets, I found most of your replies helpful.
posted by Harald74 at 12:04 AM on August 10, 2011

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