September 4, 2013 5:29 AM   Subscribe

How do I teach myself to be less sarcastic?

I say sarcastic things so often, that when I say something straight, people aren't sure if its straight or sarcastic. Largely, it is an attempt to be funny, but I'm seeing that it really isn't. So I'd like to stop. How do I go about this?
posted by falsedmitri to Human Relations (24 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Stop and think for a second before you speak. That's it. There is no magic formula.
posted by COD at 5:49 AM on September 4, 2013 [17 favorites]

COD is right actually. You have to set an intention to be more sincere when you talk to people so you have to train yourself to do a sincerity check before you say something. You'll have to be hyper conscious of it at first, but eventually you'll do it naturally and make speaking with sarcasm a choice and speaking with sincerity a reflex.

You can start with something as simple as a quick "Am I being snarky?" question for yourself. If the answer is yes, either don't say it or think of something else to say. A question asking for more information or a statement expressing interest would be good options.
posted by Kimberly at 5:57 AM on September 4, 2013

IMHO sarcasm depends on a very homogenous experience/worldview. Your close friends will know that what you say is "great," you really think is terrible, and if everyone in your small town basically has the same background and daily routine, they'll understand it too. But why would anyone from another region or country know that you weren't being serious?

You (general you) feel droll and sophisticated when you employ sarcasm, but it's actually the opposite, because it's assuming that others are just like you. Remembering that when I was about to be sarcastic with anyone but close friends would get me to stop doing it, personally, because being thought of as a rube would be a negative for me. Maybe that would work for you too?
posted by DestinationUnknown at 5:58 AM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Figure out what triggers your sarcasm, and practice an alternative reaction.
posted by jon1270 at 5:59 AM on September 4, 2013

Sarcasm isn't just an innocent "attempt to be funny", as you say. It is a mask for your true feelings. Figure out what you are truly feeling in these situations where you feel compelled to slip into a sarcastic tone. Then start expressing those feelings.
posted by deathpanels at 6:05 AM on September 4, 2013 [13 favorites]

First off, ask yourself why are you being sarcastic? Why aren't you going for the straight answer or observation?

I did this a lot as well, and the reason that I was sarcastic on certain subjects was there was a real feeling of powerlessness regarding them. Sarcasm gave me a way to at least pick my own words. What I failed to acknowledge is that mocking something, even wittily, does not necessarily gain favor, and in many cases is detrimental to the project, to work relationships, and personal advancement.

First I restricted my sarcasm to a smaller pool of people in a similar boat than me. Then I looked to see what motivated external folks to do things the way that I disagreed with, and in many cases - I found that their hands were just as tied - and what I got to see was their brave face. Then I learned how to tow the company line. That got me in with a few people I had inadvertently rebuffed in the past, and miraculously that got me into the decision making process, which meant that I really could see routinely how much people's hands were tied. What I found was that being part of the decision making process improved my valuation of the decision, my commitment to it, and actually my understanding. One could say that I drank the kool-aid.

Sarcasm has its place, but professional improvement happens when you can control it. Sure, if you are good enough, there will be some professional improvement, but until it is kept in check, it will limit advancement. Notice I said professional improvement, not skill improvement. You may become the best widget maker this side of the Mississippi River, but you'll never wind up being in charge of the widget factory if you can't play the game.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:12 AM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Stop and think for a second before you speak. That's it. There is no magic formula.

I don't know that there is a magic formula, but here is a common mnemonic for what to THINK before you open your mouth. And it really does cut down on the sarcasm.

THINK! Ask yourself, is it:


So, if it's not true (and 90% of sarcasm is Not True) then don't say it. If it is true but isn't Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, or Kind, then don't say it. Things that might fall into this category are:

You're such a klutz
I hate you
I hope he dies in a fire
You're wrong/stupid/etc

Another mnemonic is HALT:

If you are one of these things, maybe keep your mouth shut (computer keyboard away) until you can solve or alleviate the problem.

I find that the other 10% of sarcasm is tone. "Nice blouse" can really take on shades of meaning, and be really hurtful if said in the right (well, wrong) inflection. One of the fastest ways to cut down on these types of sarcasms is to speak in fuller sentences. "I really like the way that blouse catches the blue in your eyes." "Hey speedy" becomes, "I really appreciated the quick turnaround time on that printing job last week."

Once you've practiced the surface stuff around sarcasm, dig a little deeper and look at where it's coming from. Often it's a shield. A thing to hide behind. Because sarcasm keeps people at arm's length. If they can't tell wen you're tellinb the truth, it's easy to get out of admitting an emotion. You admit the emotion, it gets uncomfortable, and then you can just say "ha ha, just kidding!" Worse, it allows you to avoid other people's emotions. Think about where this comes from. I know you didn't ask this question expecting someone to say therapy, but I will say. Having an impartial third party to guide you in the digging is like having a satellite image that can show you where the giant impressions are in the earth where glaciers might have done some interesting scraping. Saves you the time of having to turn over every rock and also gives you...this metaphor is falling apart....another set of hands to help dig up the big rocks.
posted by bilabial at 6:30 AM on September 4, 2013 [17 favorites]

Another mnenomic is:


In other words, sarcasm assumes a shared context between people, which is why it works really well for people who know exactly what the other means when they say something. But if someone doesn't know what you mean, or thinks your sarcasm means something else entirely they'll be confused at best and irritated at worst.

Sarcasm can be a shield or a mask, as others have said. It can also be a habit. It can also be used, and certainly interpreted as, as sign of disrespect sometimes. As a way of breaking the habit, imagine the people you are conversing with are new to you and you need to gain their respect.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:06 AM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sarcasm is poorly masked anger, bitterness or, as said above, powerlessness. It's the refuge of the hurt idealist. It's self-protection from vulnerability and sincerity of emotion.

You've been hurt, so acknowledge the hurt. Give yourself a hug. Accept sincere support from others.

Acknowledge that when you speak sarcastically, your intention is to hurt the other person. It doesn't make you a bad person, it's just a poor way of coping with your own hurt feelings. Sarcasm doesn't relieve your hurt. It perpetuates your isolation from others, and insulates you from receiving love.

Wish to connect with others. Use your language to connect, not separate.

Make friends with non-sarcastic people.

Watch an episode of the Simpsons featuring "Comic Book Guy." If you can feel empathy at his sensitive pain and gently laugh at his ego machinations, then you've got it.

P.S. I think it's awesome that you're looking at this. I have family members who speak sarcasm as their first language and all it does is say "go away." The impact on others is that we treat those people with "kid gloves," and moderate ourselves to what we think they can handle. And when they snark, we all back slowly away. If you can see how others see your sarcasm, this may motivate you to change!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:09 AM on September 4, 2013 [11 favorites]

Do you like dogs?

Spending time in the company of dogs helps me when I feel like I'm growing too sarcastic, because dogs are pretty much the living embodiment of non-sarcasm. As others have noted, constant sarcasm comes across as fear of vulnerability; being guarded and sarcastic keeps us safe from mockery over our real feelings. Dogs don't operate this way. If something excites them they wag and romp and caper; if something upsets them they growl (or hide under the bed); if they want something they put their chin on your lap and divert every ounce of their being into expressing that want with their stare. And by god, it's endearing. Yes, they're dorks, but they're having a good time.

So in addition to the good advice already offered above, I think you'd do well to remind yourself that it's not only okay to throw your whole self into things, but it can also be ridiculously fun. If you're not a dog person, you would still do well to make sure your social circle contains plenty of non-sarcastic people so you can see this in action.
posted by DingoMutt at 7:29 AM on September 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

Online, sarcasm is the MO of the troll. You don't want to be a troll.
posted by Dragonness at 7:50 AM on September 4, 2013

Sarcasm isn't just an innocent "attempt to be funny", as you say. It is a mask for your true feelings.

Well, maybe. I agree with others that you should reflect on exactly why you are being sarcastic so often. But you also say "Largely, it is an attempt to be funny" and if that is the source you have already realized that sarcasm is sort of a lazy and not always effective way to be funny so you're in good shape. Thinking first and the mnemonics above are good; you should also remind yourself to not try and be funny in case it comes out as sarcasm.

Once you are out of the habit, if you still want to be the funny person in your group you can explore ways to be genuinely funny - maybe start with an improv class.
posted by mikepop at 7:58 AM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thinking about your question some more, it occurs to me that making this change might cause some initial embarrassment on your part, or possibly even pushback from some of your friends. Once you've become "that [X] Guy" in your social group people expect you to behave a certain way, and departing from that mold will draw attention. If it were me, even if it were positive attention it would still embarrass me a little, at best just because I don't like being the center of attention anyway and at worst because I'd feel like I was "admitting" that I didn't like the way I had been acting previously. Really, though, this shouldn't be a signal that you should give up on this - all it signifies is that people resist change (or at least note it happening).

Trying to change something about yourself when you've already established an identity in your regular circle is always going to be a challenge, and if you do have the opportunity to make new friends (not connected to your existing circle) that might help. Even if that's not possible/desirable right now, though, you can still do this. Given enough time people will let go of their idea of you as "the sarcastic one."

And it will be worth it. Sarcasm may be witty, but genuineness shows courage and comfort with yourself.
posted by DingoMutt at 8:06 AM on September 4, 2013

James Lileks says: "Just as Teenage Depression means you’re sensitive, 20something ANGER means you’re smart. Anger pays little, though, which is why so many choose its hipper cousins, Cynicism and Irony, the Olson Twins of the lazy mind."

I think it still applies: I mean, it "the sarcastic guy" really who you want to be?
posted by wenestvedt at 8:32 AM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm on the same journey with you, my friend. Here are some things that helped me (that others have mentioned):
Therapy - because I felt a lack of intimacy in my relationships that sarcasm had a starring role in creating

Being quiet in group conversations - allowed me to observe better behavior, observe other people's feelings along with my own reactions

Getting rid of my sarcastic friends - they called me to be a person I didn't want to be and I couldn't fight it

Hanging around non-sarcastic people - for me that is my Quaker sister-in-law and her family, looking for friends (no really, friends) on okcupid, meet ups, work etc.

I will say that I think we're living in a society where sarcasm is fast becoming a national language. I think this is somewhat because of places like the Internet where you can be anonymous and be snarky without taking responsibility and Facebook where being sassy will get you many likes.

Oh and it's awkward at first but push on!
Good luck!
posted by PeaPod at 8:43 AM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, mindfulness helped me stay grounded and aware of more than just myself.
posted by PeaPod at 8:49 AM on September 4, 2013

I used to be very sarcastic, thinking I was witty and biting, but in actuality, I was kind of a pain in the ass. Finally, someone mentioned that not every remark needed to be answered by a zinger. I took a hard look at myself, and realized that I was tossing these off like little bombs, hoping that no one would get any closer to me, and see the "real" flawed me that no one could possibly love or even like.

I still might come up with a snappy come-back, but I don't speak it aloud, or if I must--only to my husband. I strive to give people the benefit of the doubt and to not treat others as targets. I also gave up the scorecard in my head.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:07 AM on September 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

1. Start by simply speaking less. This is hard, trust me. But simply by being slow to speak and quick to listen you will provide yourself fewer opportunities to be sarcastic.

2. In meetings where I am afraid of monopolizing the conversation, I give myself three or five mental chips. Each time I talk, I lose a chip. When I'm out of chips, I can no longer offer unsolicited comments.

3. Ask yourself three questions when you're about to speak:
a. Does this need to be said?
b. Do >>I<> c. Do I need to say this >>now<>
These three steps have helped me to become much less of a jackass than I used to be.
posted by DWRoelands at 9:36 AM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I spent a lot of time with non-first language English speakers this summer, and the need to communicate in a direct and sincere way (since sarcasm is pretty difficult in a sense) really changed how I view communication. I've always been sarcastic and joked around a lot and I really realized it actually serves to maintain a distance between people, even when you are communicating! Is that what you want? I don't, anymore.

It's also a way to convey that you THINK you know more than the other person. And usually that doesn't really go down that well either.
posted by bquarters at 9:41 AM on September 4, 2013

If you read all these answers one thing jumps out: Sarcasm originates in fear. It's a form of cowardice. Don't be afraid to be real. Sincerity isn't weakness, it's strength.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 10:24 AM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

What has helped me go from that guy who was proud of how sarcastic everyone thought he was to normal funny guy is to remember that the best target for sarcasm is myself, and that barring that, it works best when it's you and whomever you're talking to on the same side. Being sarcastic about, say, bureaucratic procedures at work is no big deal; being sarcastic about someone else's hair is. (Kick up, not down.)
posted by klangklangston at 2:01 PM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

A lot of sarcastic people assume if they actually do cross a line, someone will call them out about it and they can learn to dial it back. However, as you get older, that's not the case. It's too emotionally exhausting to put up with the constant stream of bile and negativity, so people quietly cut you out of their lives, which is why we have so many sarcastic people here and elsewhere wondering why they're lonely and have no friends.

And a lot of sarcastic people assume everyone's sarcasm radar is as finely tuned as theirs, but the truth is, many people are sincere most of the time, so an easy way to ask whether you should say something is to ask yourself whether you would want what you say to be taken seriously, and assume it will be.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:04 PM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Give yourself permission to not say anything then maybe you won't default to sarcasm to deal with social pressure.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 2:14 PM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I want to thank everyone for taking the time to respond with such sincerity. These comments are very helpful to me.
posted by falsedmitri at 3:10 PM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

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