How did you break social habits that were hurting others and you?
October 15, 2012 1:25 PM   Subscribe

You had the habit of being sarcastic, mean, harshly opinionated (and/or some other problematic interaction) as a form of intimacy or bonding. You were able to break the habit. How, specifically, did you manage to make this change in your interaction style?

By this question I mean:
-What steps or tricks did you use to break the habit?

-What kind of things did you do or say instead?

-How did you learn to stop associating meanness (or whatever) with closeness/ impressiveness?

-How did you reposition yourself socially, change peoples' expectations?

-What kind of bonding replaced the "mean-bond"- that is, how did you learn to feel close to people without being mean to them?

-How did you get over feeling that politeness/gentleness is a very phony, shallow kind of interaction, best used for strangers or to keep people at a distance?

Bonus: Was it worth it? What changes did you notice as a result?
posted by windykites to Human Relations (47 answers total) 75 users marked this as a favorite
Find something nice to say. You'd be amazed at how a small compliment (that's meaningful, not empty) bonds you to someone. It's not phony if it's based on truth, and snarky/sarcastic is such the default nowadays that it's refreshing when someone is genuinely complimentary.
posted by xingcat at 1:35 PM on October 15, 2012

I did this (I'm still working on it every day) by becoming a genuinely kinder, less judgmental, more earnest person. The biggest impetus was finding myself surrounded by people who are straight-up, smart, funny, cool as shit, and yet somehow don't rely on being sarcastic to be memorable. It would have been a lot harder if I had been trying to change myself in the midst of peers who clicked better with the old me.

I think I am a lot happier. Communication is simpler. Love is easier. I have definitely found that life is better this way.

As for how I create intimacy and closeness now - well, I just say and do things that are *actually* intimate and close. It's amazing, what that's like when it's safe and honest.
posted by peachfuzz at 1:36 PM on October 15, 2012 [13 favorites]

It actually helped in all my interactions to read Don't Shoot the Dog! and apply it widely in my life.

In short, focus on being positive. See the things you like/admire/appreciate, and voice that. You'll be happier and your bonds will be much stronger.
posted by bearwife at 1:46 PM on October 15, 2012

What steps or tricks did you use to break the habit? What kind of things did you do or say instead?

If have something nice, say it, otherwise don't say it at all. It's okay to say someone is beautiful and gorgeous even if they're not "model" like. They CAN still be gorgeous. Just because someone isn't book smart, doesn't mean they can't have street smarts, or be resourceful. Look for the things you admire and want to emulate in others, rather than the things that you're better at.

Also, realize that a lot of times, "being right" just doesn't matter. Pick your battles. Is it really worth it to "be right" (and most times, the other party wouldn't concede anyway) and have trampled on people's self worth and your relationship with them?

How did you learn to stop associating meanness (or whatever) with closeness/ impressiveness?

By becoming more mature. Again, the wise person knows how to pick his battles. Also, most people hate to be pressured into anything. So it's best to make a reasonable case for a suggestion (if that's the scenario) and then let the person sleep on it.

Also, realize that you're not responsible for fixing the world. Fix yourself first, and yes, you have many, many flaws. They're not the same as those in others, but they're the ones you can change.

What kind of bonding replaced the "mean-bond"- that is, how did you learn to feel close to people without being mean to them?

Being complimentary and being vulnerable. One of the best ways to make a friend is to ask the person for a favor.

How did you get over feeling that politeness/gentleness is a very phony, shallow kind of interaction, best used for strangers or to keep people at a distance?

I got over it by not having to pretend that I enjoy the person's company.

Also, I'm still a smartass. I just try my best to not hurt people's feelings, because I don't want to hurt people's feelings. But there are people who enjoy that and who bond like that and that works just fine for me. However, I'm also willing to say plenty of nice things about the people I know, and that stops people from calling me "that sarcastic person", but "that person who's sometimes a smartass".
posted by ethidda at 1:47 PM on October 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

-How did you learn to stop associating meanness (or whatever) with closeness/ impressiveness?

By realizing that the people who do this to others while simultaneously proclaiming their love for the victim are the most dangerous people of all. That is not closeness and you should stop being impressed by it.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 1:48 PM on October 15, 2012 [8 favorites]

I don't know if you are a female or not, but in my early 20s, I could very much be considered sarcastic, opinionated and judgmental. Which hurt me doubly as a female in the male dominated company I worked at.

How I changed:
I started more of my sentences and emails with "I think" or "it looks like". These "softer toned" statements meant taking what I saw as facts easier for others. Sure, it still pisses me off sometimes that I have to do that, but communication is a two-way street, and people will listen to you better if you talk to them more nicely. Results are important!

I also tried to say "Good morning" or "Hello [coworker]" to greet people first thing of the day. As dumb as it sounds, it helped change people's perspectives of me immensely. Our first interactions of the day are no longer "this is wrong - fix it!" or "I need you to do this".

As to the sarcasm, looking back on it now, I was trying too hard to be funny. It was a mean funny, but I think it put people off. And, as I was more educated and motivated than most of the people I worked with, it came off as me trying to put them down. This made it so people didn't want to be around me. At first, to stop this, I would not say anything instead of saying something sarcastic. Or I would catch myself saying something kind of mean, and then more readily try to laugh to make sure they didn't take it too seriously. It's a hard thing to change.

Growing up, my dad would tease us as a way to bond. He'd comment on our "fat bellies" and would tease and make fun of us for some things we would say or do. It was a strained relationship. As kids, we grew up retaliating and making fun of him back. Last year, my dad turned 60. It was a scary milestone for him and when I asked my mom what he wanted as a gift, she said he didn't really want anything (he never does), but that we should be nice to him. As surprising as that sounds, that flipped a switch for me. Instead of ragging on him for being old, be nice to him. Wish him a happy birthday. Don't tease him about anything. It forced me to think about our interactions differently. He still tries to give me crap about things (and I back), but I try harder these days to stop myself from the automatic returned barb. Our relationship has significantly improved, including my feelings towards my dad.
posted by jillithd at 1:49 PM on October 15, 2012 [17 favorites]

-What kind of bonding replaced the "mean-bond"- that is, how did you learn to feel close to people without being mean to them?

-How did you get over feeling that politeness/gentleness is a very phony, shallow kind of interaction, best used for strangers or to keep people at a distance?

It sounds like you've conflated meanness with honesty, and you feel like if you start being nice you'll have to stop being honest with people. I haven't found that to be true at all. If you value honesty highly then you can decide that you will only ever say true things, AND that you will only ever say kind or neutral things.

This may mean you talk a lot less and listen more. That is not a bad thing.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:50 PM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can't believe I'm admitting this but reading the book "Eat, Pray, Love" did a lot to make me a nicer person. One of my friends basically forced me to read it.
posted by fshgrl at 1:51 PM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

To add some perspective of someone who is not sarcastic, I'd like to second what etheidda said about maturity ("By becoming more mature"). I experience sarcastic people as being immature. When I see an adult doing that, I think "Wow, this person stopped developing after high school". So maybe thinking of the behavior as immature behavior will help motivate you to want to change.
posted by Dansaman at 1:52 PM on October 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm working on this, too. The kindness and politeness is real, and it's been a pleasure to focus on that. Friendships now take longer to build because I can't rely on my usual rorschach test of bonding over barbs. I find that, in time, people trust me more and are more willing to share more personal information.

What do I say instead? The same stuff, except I filter out the mean stuff. It means I talk a lot less, so I listen more. I really, really love listening now. I count to ten more often, or try to.

But sometimes I feel really bland and unmemorable. I felt smarter and wittier back when I was mean, and I loved being able to surprise people by using my natural soft, sweet voice to shock people. I don't make the impact I used to -- people used to react to me and say, "That's the moment I knew we were friends. No one else could say that but you." Now things are more gradual. I wouldn't change back, but, yeah, I miss that a lot.
posted by mochapickle at 1:55 PM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also: One experience I had that made me rethink my conversational style was when I had laryngitis and couldn't speak for three days. The vast majority of the times I thought "man I really wish I could talk right now," it was because I'd seen an opportunity to make some sort of witticism. It made me realize I sometimes use humor to the exclusion of other forms of communication because it's safe and I know I can get away with it, and afterwards I made an effort not to do it quite so much. You could try a ban on all non-essential speaking for a few days and see if any similar revelations pop up for you.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:55 PM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

-What kind of bonding replaced the "mean-bond"- that is, how did you learn to feel close to people without being mean to them?

It sounds like you've conflated meanness with honesty

I think I should clarify that I'm thinking more of making mean jokes, sarcastic gibes, "zingers" that "are just jokes" but actually hurt/ alienate people in real life than I am of just saying mean things.
posted by windykites at 1:56 PM on October 15, 2012

Sarcasm is a deterrent. It keeps people at bay. I become sarcastic when I'm trying to get rid of someone I don't want to be around. Sarcasm is insincerity, it helps you hide. So the real question is: why are you hiding? Why are you not being genuine? Look for patterns. Do you find yourself becoming sarcastic when you're feeling threatened or anxious? Are there certain social situations in which trigger this response?
posted by deathpanels at 2:03 PM on October 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

I know what you mean. I think a crucial idea in this process is that more often than not, it's OK just not to say anything. It's fine to keep your mouth shut a lot. I sometimes have this urge to say something and often, it will be sarcastic/negative when I'm feeling insecure. In reality, there's no need to come up with miraculously witty, super-friendly or deep insights all the time. Relax and listen.
posted by The Toad at 2:04 PM on October 15, 2012

Also, you can still say clever things and have "zingers" that aren't mean. My partner loves to make horrible puns (which I enjoy but am not nearly as good at making). My mind is usually much more in the gutter (think all sorts of "that's what she said" jokes). If you know your audience, you can make socio-/political/economics jokes quite easily. Or if you're big movie buff, quoting the right line at the perfect moment can bring hilarity to the table.

The point being: there are plenty of ways to show your cleverness without hurting people at all. Maybe you need to find a new niche. Anyway, making "zingers" that everybody can enjoy takes much more cleverness than pointed barbs.

(You can also make zingers about people as long as they aren't mean. But that's like extra bonus level round 3 of cleverness.)
posted by ethidda at 2:05 PM on October 15, 2012

Still working on this, but honestly? I just try to talk less in general. Part of my problem is that I just have this urge to be really involved in all my conversations, and unfortunately a lot of what comes into my head is actually mean/sarcastic/judgmental. I work a lot harder to moderate myself than I used to.

Like others have said, it does mean that I'm not perceived as "funny" like I used to be. I really liked being funny! But it made a lot of people think that I'm a dick. At the end of the day, that's a trade-off I'm willing to accept.

I also try to be really aware of different audiences. I have some friends who are also kind of mean and sarcastic, and I will seriously save up snarky comments (esp. about current events, celebrities, mutual "frenemies") for when I'm with them. It helps me feel like I'm keeping my edge without actively alienating nice people.

(For the record, though, having fewer sarcastic friends has made me less sarcastic. If you surround yourself with kind, genuine people, you may find yourself shamed into being nicer. When I met my fiance, I realized I would have to either make him mean or make myself nice - the latter works out better for both of us, and probably for the world.)
posted by goodbyewaffles at 2:09 PM on October 15, 2012

One useful thing to me was to recognize that this is a point of etiquette that really varies a lot from place to place.

In the Rust Belt, where I grew up, firing off zingers at someone is genuinely friendly — or at least, is something that can be done in a genuinely friendly way. The implicit message is "Hey, we're all buddies here, right? I wouldn't be able to get away with this if I didn't like you, right?" But... then I moved to Texas. And in Texas the social norms are just very different. Even people who aren't like dramatically Southern, culturally speaking, just insult each other a lot less than I'm used to, and are way more likely to take insults as sincere rather than as having a hidden we're-all-just-buddies message.

Once I started thinking "I'm in a foreign culture! The rules are different here! I'm not an asshole, I'm just still learning these rules!" then it got easier to adapt.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:11 PM on October 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I used to be this way with my friends. I still am, sometimes. The biggest thing, for me, was self-awareness (which was spurred by my then-girlfriend pointing it out). I haven't changed dramatically, and I sometimes still fall into the "mean-bond" trap, but simply being aware that this is a problem that you have is a big step. The trick is to keep that awareness at front of mind when you're in the midst of a social situation so that you don't default to sarcasm and snark.
posted by asnider at 2:11 PM on October 15, 2012

I did therapy and kept a dream diary and spent vast quantities of time examining my belly button, some of that in my teens, some in my twenties. After my first round of therapy and before my second, I had a bouncing baby boy as a birthday present from the universe. I realized that if he spent 18 years listening to my toxic shit, he was going to be fucked up six ways to Sunday. So if I actually cared anything about him, I had an obligation to deal with my crap. To really deal with it, not just sort of try to superficially cover the stench with perfume or something. (Because he was a boy and I was very bad about making venomous sweeping statements about "all men". Some day, he would be a man so I realized that had to stop. I had to learn to genuinely like men and not just water down my fear and hatred.)

I got in the habit of biting my tongue and wondering why on earth I would want to say x, y or z thing. I would examine what it meant to me, what part of it was a positive motive, what part of it was a negative motive, where those meanings and habits came from, etc. Then I would try to figure out some way to express the positive piece of it without the negative. Iterate until I was actually being nice and not merely a less venomous bitch.

I didn't have to deal overly much with the social piece because I married a soldier and we moved regularly. My marriage was fairly socially isolating, in part because my ex was very introverted and didn't like my friends intruding on his space. I found it frustrating but even at the time I recognized it as a form of social quarantine which was necessary for me to heal and change. You might try disengaging socially, at least to some degree. Alone time was very useful for working on this. So was being exposed to new social settings where people didn't already know me as a raging bitch.

I replaced trauma-bonding with honesty and really caring about people and making friends with folks who really cared back. I got over my feeling that politeness was just bullshit by working on being both honest and nice at the same time, which can be done but is more challenging than polite white lies and the like. Realizing how hard it is to meet both standards at the same time has made me more appreciative of situations where someone can't manage to do both for some reason (short of time, frazzled, whatever) and chooses to err on the side of nice rather than on the side of honest.

Yes, it was worth it. I actually like myself. I have a good relationship with my kids. My life is vastly better, on so many levels.
posted by Michele in California at 2:12 PM on October 15, 2012 [12 favorites]

For the record, though, having fewer sarcastic friends has made me less sarcastic.

This. If you want to be positive and sincere and loving it helps to surround yourself with people who are too. And it's a two-way street because you will attract those kind of people more if you can tone down the sarcasm and negativity.
posted by neilb449 at 2:14 PM on October 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

All my dearest friends abandoned me. When I encountered hardship, the idea that "it couldn't have happened to a more deserving person" left me out in the cold.

I made new friends and over the course of literal decades repaired old friendships but some never come back.

When people you care about, whose opinions you value, turn their back on you in a time of need really leads to some serious introspection.
posted by Max Power at 2:15 PM on October 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Before you talk, ask yourself, is it

Is it Necessary?
Is it Kind?

It has to be all three before it comes out of your mouth.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:21 PM on October 15, 2012 [22 favorites]

-What steps or tricks did you use to break the habit?
I stopped hanging out with people who rewarded such behavior. When the multitalented CS PhD candidate genius responds to my sarcastic inquiries with earnestness and genuine interest, I feel embarrassed and petty.

When all the insightful and creative people around me are excited about some cool piece of art or music or code that they're making and I can't join in because I can't think of a single nice thing to say about something that is objectively good, I feel lonely.

I didn't want to be like that anymore. I wanted to be like the good people who were impressive without being mean. So..

-What kind of things did you do or say instead?

I mostly didn't say anything, for a long time. It took me a long time to come up with positive things to say, so I just sort of watched other people and tried different responses until I found some that fit my personality. I had to teach myself to focus on the bright side. I'd sort of catch the reflexive snark and then force myself to find a silver lining and comment on the silver lining instead. I shut my mouth if I didn't like something and talked at length if I did like something. Two years later, it's become a reflexive habit. It wasn't easy and I still have to watch myself if I've had a bad day.

-How did you learn to stop associating meanness (or whatever) with closeness/ impressiveness?

I started hanging out with impressive people who weren't mean at all. I also got to see how their lack of petty focus on snark freed them up to experiment, explore, and create.

-How did you reposition yourself socially, change peoples' expectations?

It's hard to shake the impression you've been making on people for years. You have to commit to being a different person and show them that you have changed for years before they'll start to accept it. Humiliating, yes, but it's part of the deal when you decide you want to change.

-What kind of bonding replaced the "mean-bond"- that is, how did you learn to feel close to people without being mean to them?

The same kind of bonding that existed within the mean-bond, only minus the random sharp comments I was poking people with. Which meant I got to hear more about the parts of their lives they were afraid to show me, which meant that I got closer to them overall.

-How did you get over feeling that politeness/gentleness is a very phony, shallow kind of interaction, best used for strangers or to keep people at a distance?

Seeing that some people I cared about responding better to politeness and gentleness. Seeing depressed friends open up to me and become willing to take better care of themselves once they weren't surrounded by sarcastic jerks.
posted by rhythm and booze at 2:21 PM on October 15, 2012 [10 favorites]

I had a friend who was like this. He was the sort who would say "I'm telling it like it is" as an excuse to be mean, and he was also fond of zingers and put-downs. There's a very fine line between clever and mean, but once you get used to someone standing on it, things shade into mean much easier. I noticed that when I was around him I'd pick up on that behavior, and then carry it into situations when he wasn't there.

We stopped being friends for a reason that mostly was not related, but I noticed how much nicer I became when I wasn't constantly exposed to that sort of.. pettiness.

Take a look at your social circle, too. Spend less time with the people who encourage this and more time with the ones who don't.
posted by cmyk at 2:22 PM on October 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'll answer your question in terms of how I see people who are constantly sarcastically mean:

I use whether someone can say something nice and genuine about a person as a barometer for whether I want to be around that person. I understand that many people are socialised to tease and not be nice in order to bond (although I wasn't), but if you literally cannot say something nice to someone about who they are and what they do, then I assume you're the shallow one and I don't want to be around you.

Too much sarcasm is a barrier between people that says - hey, I'm really fragile, I would rather attempt to look cool than actually let you in and communicate with you as a person.

I won't say that being this way makes things easier - I have worked with numerous people who are determined to hate on everything in order to be perceived a particular way and it's akin to slowly removing all the oxygen from a room.

It doesn't mean that I'm not sarcastic - but I tend to not be sarcastic about other people but rather situations. You can have fun - I just think it's boring to have it at other people's expenses.

I think you have to have people around you who genuinely care about you and will have your back - life is difficult enough as it is - not people who are concerned constantly about the image they're projecting.
posted by heyjude at 2:24 PM on October 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

I came here to say what small_ruminant said. I even have that saying on a post-it stuck to my computer, to try to help me with my online interactions.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:34 PM on October 15, 2012

You had the habit of being sarcastic, mean, harshly opinionated (and/or some other problematic interaction) as a form of intimacy or bonding. You were able to break the habit. How, specifically, did you manage to make this change in your interaction style?

1) I moved out of New England, and 2) spent over a year in therapy. Empathy is a learnable skill.
posted by zippy at 2:46 PM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I quit watching almost everything on Comedy Central and deleted my Facebook and I am slowly transforming into a wise, patient teddy bear.
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 2:47 PM on October 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

I practiced thinking of compliments for people I knew. Then, instead of whatever zinger I had, I used the appropriate compliment. Often, it then gets reinforced by the other person being kind back!

Years and years later, I still sometimes unintentionally think of wickedly funny, sarcastic things to say, but I enjoy them privately and do not share them with anyone. Not even later, not even someone not the target who will think it's funny, never say it.
posted by momus_window at 2:58 PM on October 15, 2012

I lost a lifelong friend because I'd made her life misery while we were living together. I only found out by accident. After that, I thought about what I said. Sometimes, even years later, I'm tempted to say something "witty" just because I thought of it, and rarely, I do, but pull myself up on it. I chose to make myself the butt of my jokes - no-one gets hurt that way.
posted by b33j at 3:06 PM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm thinking more of making mean jokes, sarcastic gibes, "zingers" that "are just jokes" but actually hurt/ alienate people in real life than I am of just saying mean things.

This is the thing: there is actually no difference between those. Something mean or hurtful is still mean or hurtful even if you think it's funny. Probably more so.

What kind of bonding replaced the "mean-bond"

The real kind.

That's pretty glib, but I mean it. Politeness and niceness and gentleness get a bad rap, because so many of us have to fake them so much of the time, but don't mistake the cash-register simulacrum of niceness for the real thing. The real thing is pretty cool.

Obviously this is something I still struggle with (my behavior online in particular lags behind the improvements I'm trying to make in my day to day interactions.) I didn't even realize I had a problem in this area until I encountered a group of people who, well the most concise way to put it is that they live in an irony-free zone. They are, yes, big ol' hippie idealists, which can grate in its own way after a while, but the contrast after spending a while in their bubble of niceness-to-each-other and coming back to the "real" world of smirks and jibes is... niceness is way way better.

Find yourself some hippies to hang out with. Go to the kind of event where strangers hug each other hello. Set your sarcasm aside for a while, take it all at face value, and put yourself in a state of mind where the phrase "open yourself to positive energy" does not fill you with derision, and I promise you you will be a happier and better person. I dunno. Maybe that won't work for everyone, but it's working for me.
posted by ook at 3:08 PM on October 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

One thing you are going to notice if you end up where you want: A lot of your friends are sarcastic jerks. It is going to be very hard to deal with people that have this personality trait after you've eliminated it.
posted by bensherman at 3:39 PM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

More harshly opinionated than sarcastic, but the biggest thing I've learned in my professional career--and it took me an embarrassingly-long time to realize this--is that people don't care if you're right. They care if they like you. Even if you are actually right. Even if you have objective proof that you're right. If they don't like you, they don't care, and that's how you become the guy that's always right that nobody listens to.

In fact, if they don't like you, it's even worse than that if you're right, because they hate you doubly for being right (thus proving them wrong) and for hurting their feelings by saying their ideas wouldn't work (even if they wouldn't).

I'm just not sentimental, about my work or anything else. If you tell me you didn't like something I did, I want to know how to fix it. If you ask for my opinion, I'll give it to you straight with whatever kind of backup I can provide or note it's off the top of my head.

Figuring out that people take things personally--and take judgements on their work as deeply personal judgements against Who They Are As A Person--was a long road for me. A boss once screamed at me that I was technically correct and completely right but that didn't matter because (reasons) and I found that deeply puzzling. Changing a system that (objectively) worked because you'd just been put in charge and had to Make Your Mark (and would objectively be worse) seemed absurd.

Eventually I figured it out. What I took for clear-eyed and tough-but-fair contradicting opinions on things backed up with serious data I'd gathered came across as "I hate your stupid work and hate you because you're wrong and your ideas are stupid," which is much easier to dismiss out of hand and, in fact, raises suspicions when the project doesn't work out, because HMMM you were pretty heavily invested in this not working, buster!

So now I dial it back, go along with the consensus as much as possible, and keep my mouth shut when I'm right. When asked for an opinion, I'll provide the data I've gathered to back it up and maybe a nudge in the right direction, but otherwise remain the grey eminence behind the scenes gathering information and trying to provide the right gentle nudge.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:47 PM on October 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

I stopped conflating sarcasm with intelligence, and I stopped conflating earnestness with naivete or stupidity. I further came to realize that sarcasm is generally a cowardly weaselly way to communicate for people who are too chicken-shit to come out and say what they actually mean.

I did not want to be a coward, a weasel, or chicken-shit, so I started saying exactly what I meant rather than "joking" or teasing. Relationships greatly improved, which reinforced the behavioral change.
posted by jaguar at 4:11 PM on October 15, 2012 [16 favorites]

Sorry this is long, but it was (is) a long road for me. My Gen X twenties self would think of today's me as a total phony. Part of it for me was understanding the social "rewards" and benefits for changing my behavior - what I got out of it, how I could use it to achieve a result I wanted. Which I'll list below.

Being around kids helped me. They don't respond well to sarcasm; they will model their behavior on yours and become sarcastic in turn, which you don't want if you're trying to get them to do something or become social people who can follow rules. You have to become a more credulous, ingenuous person so they'll follow you and model that behavior. This is where I learned that your attitude is infectious.

Being in sales and marketing-driven organizations helped, once I stopped feeling like a total fake. You start to realize that language is really a virus - people 'read' your words and attitude and it's hard to motivate them if you're being negative or even neutral. They'll draw away from that vibe. It's not seen as analytical - they don't want to hear the negativity, or "the TRUTH," they don't even want to hear the SWOT, they want to hear the positive thing that's going to make them feel good and get them somewhere. They want an evangelist who's going to make them feel good about what's coming; they want leadership they feel compelled to follow.

Needing to work as a team helped me. I noticed that the 20-somethings in my office who still acted sarcastic with lots of one-liners were acting like they were on a television series "the Office" rather than actually doing a job - and it didn't help them or the team. Ditto my single girlfriends who always complained about how men sucked. Many times people who complain or poke fun are looking for comfort, not a cure, and will not solve their problems by this method, or at all. Getting into a bitch-fest with these people will only work you up more. Note to self: know what you're trying to accomplish and do not take entertainment for real life or catharsis as a path to success. Play the part of success, helping others and fixing problems, promoting the organization. Live your best life, Oprah-style, improve and strive for better things, and don't focus on the negative. Even just saying self-deprecating things rather than relentlessly self-promoting gets construed as "weakness" in some circles and will be pounced on, so I try to cut it out altogether. Language and negativity are viral (so is positivity - more later).

(Also - ditto what Ghostride the Whip said about being "right" on preview - be willing to weigh other sides of an argument even-handedly and talk about possible outcomes, even when the counter-argument is patently bullshit, to spare feelings - you're a team player!!! Focus on being positive about the strengths of your solution, rather than negative about other peoples' weaknesses, and cede some ground to possible benefits of their approach if you need real diplomacy).

Lastly, it helped me to realize that people generally enjoy talking about themselves and being listened to much more than they enjoy hearing me talk about anything. Now I try to be an active listener and ask them questions that draw them out. Being around other wise-asses is a great quick-bonding method. But when you're around someone whose background and disposition you don't know, it's important to find out what's important to them and what they're interested in, which they won't share unless you act interested. Then they'll respond to you and like you, even if you don't say much other than 'mirror' them, agree, ask follow up questions, and laugh at their jokes. This is important to meeting people from different countries and backgrounds (something I enjoy), because they may have different values, and humor DOES NOT always translate.

You'll also notice infectious enthusiasm is a force multiplier in sales and marketing (and friendships!). If you act enthusiastic and excited about something, or "catch" the enthusiasm of others for their interests, people feed off of that. It works, and is really easy to do once you get over the need to "speak your truth" about everything. It may not feel "genuine" when you start doing it (it's not how you really feel - so fake!), but you're being "genuinely" nice and social. Act like you care. You will get results. It's true that 'troubles shared are troubles halved,' but it's even better to talk about something the other person is really excited about instead. Maybe they'll listen to you in turn.

I don't know that I feel close to all of these people I practice this on; often it feels like I can't be "me" and I'm walking on eggshells, or it wears me out being "on." But I also realized that the "teasing" crowd I felt close to were actually more of a "you and me against the world" clique, and some of them were seriously dysfunctional. They were insecure, they had both sharp tongues and thin skins, they were constant drama. The excitement of that wears off. You can find more reciprocal, caring relationships by acting genuinely reciprocal, caring and nurturing towards others, even if it takes time and effort to establish a bond.

That's what I focus on to motivate me: results. By being less negative/sarcastic, I'm getting better results from kids, from my job, in my life, and I'm finding more genuine people, even if I don't choose to become best friends with all of them. There's usually something I get out of it. I can have a goal and achieve something towards it, rather than just sitting in the peanut gallery and ripping on everything while contributing nothing.

So now I say something nice or don't say anything at all. A lot of time the "not-nice" thing really doesn't need to be said - what do you get out of it besides some kind of smug, defeatist, mean-spirited snipe or kvetch that doesn't solve anything? Or if I want to convey something critical I go with understatement if I must: "it was not my favorite, it could have been more X, X element was not ideal, it was no walk in the park, he's no Orson Welles" - then I usually follow up with something positive to mitigate it: "but what a great soundtrack and performances from the actors!" - whatever. Do the SWOT but don't forget an "opportunity" (i.e. proposed solution) to offset the weakness, and end on the strength. People are sensitive, and less is really more, plus it's good to end on an up-note. I see how others respond to understatement. If they roll their eyes, make a crack, or snort with derision, then maybe you can open up the floor to be more of a wise-ass. You've found a kindred spirit. Or maybe they want to express something more negative themselves but they need you to "open them up" with a softball by being gentle and even-handed in your criticism. Not everyone finds it easy to be critical.

Having a mentor/role model you respect in this stuff and modeling their behavior helps a lot, too, if you haven't previously. What would Queen Elizabeth do (or whoever)? Last thing: I started exercising daily as a way to work off my temper, competitiveness and excess adrenaline, which helped my disposition and self-containment a lot, although I still have to remember consciously not to roll my eyes and to have positive body language :) And I find other outlets for indulging my wise-ass side, like watching comedies or kvetching to those who appreciate my terrible attitude, so I don't feel deprived of day-to-day bitchiness.
posted by Marnie at 4:30 PM on October 15, 2012 [12 favorites]

I haven't had this exact problem, but I have had a habit of being rather sarcastic throughout most of my life (just never to the point of actually alienating anyone—although certainly occasional remarks have caused others pain), and I grew up in a family where "don't be upsetI'm only joking" was a painful mantra. As I've gotten older, and chosen my company more carefully, I've noticed this tendency going away naturally. For me, it really has been a defense mechanism, and at this point, whenever I'm being sarcastic, it's clear to me that it's actually a way of keeping people at arm's length, not close. (To be fair, I never thought of it as a way of being close—although I guess, depending on who you're surrounded with, I see how it could be interpreted that way.) I'm really only sarcastic with certain members of my family now—exactly those individuals that I've never been able to be close to. The only other time it comes out is when I'm feeling particularly awkward and shy and feel the need to fill the silence and/or impress someone. It's an impulse that I can usually control. My relationship with my husband certainly has some playful ribbing, but it's nothing like what my relationship with my family was growing up. Given the choice, I vastly prefer the latter.

In short, I hope that my story will help you to reframe your vision of what closeness really is. Sarcasm, etc., may be fun and easy, but it can also be exhausting, and the fact that it's causing problems in your relationships should be exactly the incentive you need to learn to control the impulse—or to change your surroundings. And with time, I think (hope) that you'll find that relationships built on kindness and generosity, rather than flippant, all-to-clever remarks are much more fulfilling.
posted by divisjm at 4:38 PM on October 15, 2012

Among other tactics similar to the ones others have described, I wrote "10%" in black marker on my hand every day for about a week. Every time I felt myself reacting to something in an undesirable way, I'd tell myself "Ten percent... ten percent..." and only allowed myself to express ten percent of what I was feeling. It taught me to 1) monitor my feelings and behavior and 2) consciously scale back my normal reaction. Once I learned to flex that "muscle" of self-control, it went a long way toward changing my behavior.

You might also want to check out What Would Aristotle Do? Self-Control Through the Power of Reason.
posted by Rykey at 5:10 PM on October 15, 2012

-What steps or tricks did you use to break the habit?

I allowed myself to risk looking like a fool for wearing my heart on my sleeve and admitted to myself that teasing was just a coverup for vulnerability.

-What kind of things did you do or say instead?

Recently (last night) I found myself listing the qualities I loved in one of my friends to that friend, knowing full well that the person isn't the type to gush back at me, without worrying about getting rejected or teased in return. Why? Well, six of my friends have died in their youth (half of those by suicide) and I'm not about to lose more without them knowing I care about them.

-How did you learn to stop associating meanness (or whatever) with closeness/ impressiveness?

Like nebulawindphone upthread, I moved from the Rust Belt to Texas (by way of Nevada) and along the way I picked up a sense of gentility that is sorely lacking in the big-hearted, yet dry-humored, Midwest. Teasing is understood as affection there, but not everywhere. If you live in a place where it's more common, it will be harder to change, but you might not have to change as much.

-How did you reposition yourself socially, change peoples' expectations?

I did not take my alt-journalism persona beyond the newsroom when I was writing for a snarky, The Onion-ish publication. You may find a similar dynamic in that there is a time and a place where it's acceptable, even admired, but it must be left at the door when you leave.

-What kind of bonding replaced the "mean-bond"- that is, how did you learn to feel close to people without being mean to them?

By offering to do favors, giving compliments, saying I love you, smiling, eye contact, and shared fun activities (especially those involving laughing together in a non-snarky way...thanks, Pixar!)

I always end phone conversations with my family by telling them I love them, which is not how I was brought up...but life is short, and that's more important than awkwardness. They have now learned to say it too...even first sometimes. That is really something for stoic Michiganders!

-How did you get over feeling that politeness/gentleness is a very phony, shallow kind of interaction, best used for strangers or to keep people at a distance?

By being honest, enthusiastic, and vocal with people about the things I liked about them, rather than merely silent about what I didn't like about them, which is what "politeness" sometimes seems to mean. By having deep conversations with others -- listening to them disclose interesting things about themselves, instead of talking about the weather, food, sports, etc. And by hugging.

Bonus: Was it worth it? What changes did you notice as a result?

I have many fewer friends now. But the ones I have are 100% true-blue friends and I don't mind not having more, because I want to spend time with the few. So yes, totally worth it.

A lot of these changes were simply emergent, organic phenomena for me. Maturation (otherwise known as living through a sequence of Shit-Just-Got-Real moments) is really the cure for youthful, insouciant snark. But working on it consciously is good too, and will make the process easier! Good for you for your self-awareness and willingness to be authentic.
posted by xenophile at 5:22 PM on October 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

For intimate relationships only: my husband and I both joke a lot, and used to joke too much. It was not usually mean, but also not necessarily appropriate or conducive to genuine communication. One thing I found that worked is using gestures instead of words. I would come over and stroke his back or head instead of talking, and it would communicate only the good things.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:45 PM on October 15, 2012

What catalyzed this process for me was time and experiences that allowed me to define my personality and self more through what I've done in my life, and less by rejecting others' choices and styles. I think the snarky, mean/funny mode is often employed by those who don't yet have their own experiences and achievements to hold up to the world as theirs, nor the grounded confidence that facilitates empathy and compassion for those who have gone down other roads. Without much to call their own, they fall back on revealing their personality through rejecting what they see around them.

What I did to change was taking note of certain friends who didn't resort to the snotty humor that was once my staple form of communication. I watched and admired people who were able to express themselves and their emotions honestly and without shame. I saw how much people appreciate and respect someone like that. It was difficult to emulate those mentors, but I got better at recognizing when I was heading down the old, familiarly negative road, and taking my part of the conversation anywhere but there. I'm not perfect, and I miss out on some of the gossipy humor among my friends, but I've earned something better in trade.
posted by itstheclamsname at 5:47 PM on October 15, 2012

I think I should clarify that I'm thinking more of making mean jokes, sarcastic gibes, "zingers" that "are just jokes" but actually hurt/ alienate people in real life than I am of just saying mean things.

What started helping me with recognizing this facet of my personality was seeing other people doing it on Facebook. It turns out that zingers, barbs and the like really aren't as funny as they might seem.

Because it is kind of exhausting, and not very "present" to be always looking for one liners and retorts in a conversation.
posted by gjc at 7:35 PM on October 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

My parents could have played "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" I grew up seeing hostility as proof of intimacy, so that's how I demonstrated my feelings of closeness. Then I fell in love with a guy on the autism spectrum, who's the most genuinely nice person I know. He doesn't understand sarcasm, and he doesn't use meanness, and when I use either of those with him, they go right over this head. That's how I learned to stop. If you're not as lucky as I was, then as much as possible, always be aware of the literal meaning of whatever you want to share. That takes a few years, but you'll get the hang of it. Then you can be more aware of choosing your battles, or how important it is to be right. It's not always a zero-sum game.
posted by melesana at 9:59 PM on October 15, 2012

OMG you have some great answers here! I will just add a few things :-)

What steps or tricks did you use to break the habit?

I broke it totally by accident. I switched jobs, going from a smart-caustic-cynical culture into a brilliant-earnest-kind culture. And like other people here have said, once I was surrounded by non-sarcastic people, my own sarcasm started to ebb away, and after a while started feeling, when I did do it, unnatural and weird/inappropriate.

What kind of things did you do or say instead?

People here are saying that sarcasm is a distancing mechanism, and a fear thing (normally fear of being thought gullible or unsophisticated or stupid), and I think that's true. I found myself being much more sincere, more straightforward, more vulnerable. Asking more questions. Thinking more about the other person, and less about what they were thinking about me. (I still have a normal-or-worse level of self-centredness, but I am pretty good about keeping it at bay while I'm actually in a conversation. Tough love works: I will sometimes lecture myself internally to shut up, pay attention, it's not about you, etc., or I will make a game out of trying as hard as I can to fully understand someone's perspective.)

What kind of bonding replaced the "mean-bond"- that is, how did you learn to feel close to people without being mean to them?

That I think changes naturally as you start to experience a new and more honest kind of bonding. I was really surprised by it, and it took me a while to realize I didn't have to be on-stage, that (healthy) people actually prefer unpolished, raw, sometimes messy intimacy over mutual performance.

I do want to say also that I agree with the commenter who said there's a cultural component to this. Personally I've found some cultures (British, some Americans, Dutch) much saucier than others (Scandinavians, Germans, some Americans). Maybe thinking about it as a cultural thing would be helpful for somebody wanting to make a change in this area -- then you could think of yourself as learning a new language, so you can communicate with someone who doesn't speak the one you already know. That might feel less risky and irrevocable -- like, you would not be changing yourself, you'd just be changing something you do.

Good luck!
posted by Susan PG at 1:45 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had a friend who would take almost the exact same joke opportunities that I would, but he would make the opposite jokes -- that is, the sort of over-the-top compliments that were just as silly as the also-not-literal put-downs, and somehow equally funny (with a little undertone of cute). It was interesting to think about whether I could try that other tack and thus tickle my be-funny bone without being so distancing (or accidentally pinging somebody now and then)...
posted by acm at 2:20 PM on October 16, 2012

I'm actually sitting on a bus right in front of a bunch of highschool kids who are obviously friends, and obviously part of the same kind of click that I was in during high school/ in my old town. Their entire conversation is basically them being mean to each other (and themselves).

I had no idea how awful, how incredibly and obviously damaging, this stuff sounds like from the other side. My heart's absolutely breaking for these kids. Realising that this is what I must sound like, what I must be doing to people, might be more effective than all of this (very good) advice put together.

Future readers of this thread might be well served by doing something similar.

I marked a few best answers because they seemed to most specifically hit the info I wanted, but they're all really good advice.
posted by windykites at 4:06 PM on October 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm only partway there, so I don't know how much useful advice I have to share right now.

I'd start by asking what's in it for you? Why do you value saying harsh things if you generally don't actually want to hurt people? For example, one of my worst verbal habits is trash talk in social situations. I've always defended it by saying that it was how my family always interacted, and that it was our way of showing how much we trusted each other, how brave and daring we were. Yeah, we could dish it out AND we could take it!

Then I slowly realized that because my family is really screwed up (which is something I've known for decades) maybe those habits weren't actually as admirable as I had thought. I could no longer argue that everything was awesome when I was a kid, then things went bad. We were jerks from the beginning.

In fact, my family has split into a million tiny pieces and I'm only close to one sibling out of four. Some of that meanness we all played at really did hurt some people very badly. I decided at one point that the way I'm going to show people that I love, trust and support them is not to just say and show what I mean (which I have always done along with the trash talk), but that I was just going to stop talking shit. It's really hard, but I just keep telling myself that there is no Opposite Day.

In addition, if you came from a family or environment like mine, your self-esteem probably got damaged enough to require compensation in odd ways. My sister and I both agree that we hate being the center of attention for what seems like no good reason. We both feel that we earn attention and love only if we can show that we're smarter than everyone else, or funnier than everyone else, or if we are helping people out in some reasonably important way. This does not make us very pleasant to be around sometimes.

So if that kind of tape loop is playing in your head, you have to stop it. You don't have to bring the best zingers or the most knowledge to any social situation. Try this experiment the next time you go out with your friends.

- Give yourself 10 points for every genuine question, helpful observation or spontaneous compliment you contribute.
- Give yourself 15 points for every round of conversation in which you take only one turn. (If there are five people in your group, are you trying to contribute more than 20% of the total conversation? If so, you probably aren't competing to say the nicest possible things about people.)
- Deduct 20 points for every negative or attention grabbing thing you say. This doesn't mean that you can never say something funny: it just means you have to build up some credit of nice before you can play the comic.
- If you start competing with people for getting the last word or last punchline in, take off 30 points.

Just do this once, just to get a feel for how much these patterns may be taking over your life.
posted by rosebuddy at 11:38 PM on October 17, 2012

Good for you!

I only know what sounds kind to others by being kind to myself first. Be good and gentle to yourself and everything else will follow. You are worth it, and I promise there is a part of you who will rejoice.
posted by macinchik at 11:57 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

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