Big Dig: Is sarcasm humor or hurt?

Most of us know about the Big Dig; that was the major demolition in downtown Boston that was planned in 1982 with construction work starting in 1991 and not being completed until the very end of 2007. Few thought the timeline funny.

But we’re talking about a different kind of dig, a verbal one known as sarcasm, which most of us have used to criticize a friend or family member, usually unwittingly, though sometimes deliberately.

In an attempt to be funny, we end up sounding snarky, sometimes hurting the recipient of our barbs. Or sometimes the intent is to be unkind but masquerade it as humor so we don’t come off looking unkind and even mean. 

One lovely spring afternoon Margaret was sitting next to her friend on a bench in a local park, munching popcorn. She reached for her cell phone and noticed her reflection in the screen. She was aghast. “Wow, I hate those wrinkles on my upper lip.” 

Instead of her friend saying, “Oh it’s no big deal,” or “I think you’re exaggerating,” she instead said: “Yeah, they look like a set of pleated drapes. You should consider filler, or you’ll probably never be able to post selfies again. Ha. Ha.”

Margaret felt her breath catch, her heart race. What was her friend thinking? She sort of chuckled and then let it go. She knew the person well enough to accept that she wasn’t trying to be mean but funny. But funny, she didn’t feel.

Comments like these can crack a friendship apart when the giver of sarcasm may realize a beat too late that it wasn’t funny. Sometimes, they never do. And more often than not, sarcasm falls short of the desire to be humorous. It often just doesn’t feel funny. It feels like hurt and even anger…and an ice chard through the heart.

We came up with a rating system we call “The Snarky.” It’s on a scale from 1 to 5, with five being the ultimate in snarkiness. Here are more examples of sarcasm that can set a match to an ordinary situation and our rating of each:

3 snarkies. Funny but rude.

I think I’ll donate my blood to the red cross. They need type O+.

With all the carbohydrates you eat, are you sure they’ll take it when your blood is probably 90 percent sugar?


4 snarkies. Really rude.

One friend to another: How do you think Sally looks?

Response: She didn’t do well with the test of time. Her face looks like a Rand McNally road map.


2 snarkies. Not sure how to take this, whether a hit or a compliment.

One friend to another: I met a really cute guy in the grocery line today. We talked, and he took my number. I hope he remembers me.

Response: You’re not exactly subtle--more like concrete. You make quite an impression when it’s freshly poured.


4 snarkies. The burn leaves scars. 

One friend to another: I’m gaining so much weight. I need to lose.

Response: How about trying a healthy cooking class, a fast-paced pickleball tournament and avoid sitting on the couch texting and watching reruns of “The Biggest Loser?”


1 snarkies. Know exactly how to take this and you don’t like it at all.

One friend: I really like these boots and need a new pair. I have been looking forever.

Response: I didn’t think you could afford this kind of expense? Did you win the lottery or something I didn’t know about?

Sarcastic people typically think they’re funny…but truth be told, it’s at your expense. They fancy themselves to be comediennes like the guys in those sitcoms who throw out sarcastic quips like Donald Trump tossing out paper towels after Hurricane Florence ravaged Puerto Rico. Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is a prime example.

You have a certain behavior and another person comments on it in what she thinks is a clever retort. For instance, a friend is eating ice cream and complaining that she’s gaining weight. Instead of being supportive and saying something like, “It’s no big deal to cheat occasionally,” she says in an attempt at humor: “It’s really not good for you, you do know that, don’t you? Are you trying for an early death?”

Oscar Wilde, the playwright, said that “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence.” It doesn’t seem very intelligent to us to poke fun at someone, Oscar, even if you think it shows creativity. Yes, there are better ways to express ourselves creatively: play an instrument, bake and decorate cakes, compose music or write something nice to make someone feel good. What a novel idea! Now, that contained a bit of snark, we’ll admit.  

Sarcasm can even bite more when it’s in a text or an email that is devoid of emotion or intonation or emojis. Text: Can you meet for dinner tonight? Text in response: I don’t like to go out after 7 pm. Response: Ok. Sure, I understand. Two days later the person who sent the original text sees that her friend has RSVP’d to a party that starts at 7:30 p.m. So, you send a text. “I see you’re going to Brian’s party. I thought you don’t go out after 7p.m.”

Is there a way to capitalize on the creativity without the sting? One study on sarcasm showed that it comes down to trust as to how the recipient of the sarcasm reacts.  If it’s a really close friend or a partner, you might let it go. You know they are trying to be funny and not hurtful—or you can turn to them and say on the spot, “That’s mean.” If it happens repeatedly, that may be a good time to speak up. But if it comes from someone you don’t trust or know as well, it can make you angry.

And some of us might hold on to the hurt and analyze the thought behind it for a day or two—or longer. Our obsessive gene might kick in. Then, we decide to either confront the person or let it go. Perhaps, you figure that person isn’t important enough in your life to spend time discussing it. Then, you can make the decision to avoid that person in the future or at least step away or give the person a second or third chance. Maybe, they’ve honed the art of sarcasm after a long time so they need more time to give it up. Yes, sadly, a few we know have earned a Ph. D in the skill.

But we hope we can help stop sarcasm at the pass. What about a T-shirt? It can say: Avoid Sarcasm: The Big Dig and have a picture of a shovel digging a big hole (the very one you’ve dug by using sarcasm in the first place).  

If you’ve offended and know it—maybe, the recipient of your sarcasm didn’t laugh--in that moment, turn around, look the person in the eye and very kindly say, “Believe me, I apologize. I think you’re great. Don’t you know that? I hope you know that.” And then hope this sounds sincere. You can prove you graduated by trying harder when you’re dying to be clever by sharing your creativity kindly rather than with a sarcastic barb.


1 comment

  • Jill Davis

    all true. any attempt at humor should be made at one’s own expense, not someone else’s

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