Tony Leighton is a Canadian writer happily retired and attempting to help others feel the same.

Sarcasm: Getting Clean

When I talk about using our final third of life to become the people we've always wanted to be, the very idea can seem odd to those who haven't considered such a form of personal engineering.

So let me give you an example of how it can work, and why it's such good work.


It's an ugly habit. I've heard it called "the lowest form of humor." But I think that lets the sarcastic person off the hook too easily, as if they are innocently trying to be funny.

Seth Godin recently wrote: "The problem with sarcasm is that the level of displeasure is hidden. You might come across as snarky when you don’t mean to, or, the snarkiness you were sending might not land."

That too implies that sarcastic people don't know what they are doing, that they don't understand the impact of a thinly veiled slight.

I don't buy it.

I think most of us know that sarcasm wounds trust — because it hides the truth.

I spent a few years enduring sarcasm — in the form of mockery — from a woman with whom I was involved. It was her way of operating, unmistakably inherited from her father, who tossed off sarcasm as casually as others tell a joke. But the cutting edge was always there. And anyone receiving the sarcastic comment could not help but feel belittled to some degree. Belittlement also erodes trust. You're always bracing.

I look back now and wonder how such a cheap tool could become culturally accepted in any family. Yet it's not uncommon.

These days, too, I'm feeling that sarcasm is widely seen as hip and clever and a justifiable retort to slowness or ignorance, permissible in a hard-ass culture where hate leaks visibly from all sides. ("The witty will have fun; the stupid won't get it.")

That's all the more reason to give it up as soon as possible.

I’m chagrined to admit that I still use sarcasm with a small group of old friends, because we've used it for years. I don't think that's good enough anymore. What it creates in fun, it steals in warmth. It's sapping. I've cut back drastically. Now, I think I'll refrain altogether.

As my wise psychotherapist wife said recently, "We have no right to leave our psychological footprints on anybody."

If sarcasm is one of your tools, I predict that being done with it will make you feel cleaner. In its absence, more consistent decency will arise. You'll find more skillful ways to communicate.

Godin gives this example: Rather than sarcastically say something like "Well, that was super helpful" to someone who has been the opposite, consider the straight goods: “I’m disappointed that you weren’t able to contribute more here. We were really looking forward to your input.”

Dropping sarcasm will also improve your relationships. Guaranteed. No one will have to beware of your snarks. No one will fear the smirky ambush.

If you are sarcastic to your spouse (I saw lots of that in my father and other unevolved men of his generation), and you make it a personal rule to never do it again — not once — your marriage will improve as an outgrowth of greater trust. Marriages can die by a thousand small cuts. Sarcasm, wielded with even a whiff of malice, is a blade.

And sarcasm with children? Don't even think about it. The damage is greater and the infection spreads. I speak from experience, as a child, with a father who routinely became increasingly sarcastic as he became inebriated.

Sarcasm is just one example of how we older people can clean up bad habits — now that we have the time to see them for what they are — and get free of them through faithful practice.

Better late than never.

Here are some quotes about sarcasm that I fished from the big digital pool which should drive the point home (and out of the house):

“Sarcasm is the last refuge of the imaginatively bankrupt.”

― Cassandra Clare, City of Bones

"Sarcasm is like cheap wine — it leaves a terrible aftertaste."

— Dana Perino

"The key to humor is often self-loathing or sarcasm. In a sense, that's how self-loathing is made palatable."

— James Gray

“Sarcasm I now see to be, in general, the language of the devil; for which reason I have long since as good as renounced it.”

— Thomas Carlyle

"I'm so sick of sarcasm and irony, I could kill! Sincerely, the root of things is love and sacrifice."

— Ben Foster

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Mail: On Liberty & Getting Older

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