Sarcastic = Smarter. Seriously?

Sarcastic = Smarter

Sarcasm, according to the old adage, is the lowest form of wit. Well not according to a recent study in Psychology Today which claims that being a sharp tongued wise ass proves you are smarter than the average bear. But be warned, use it too much and you may damage your career prospects…

The ability to insult stupid people without them realising it has long been a mainstay of business community communication. You don’t say. It’s also used to great effect in a slightly different form – something my U.S based friends call a ‘roasting’ (which means something very different in other parts of the World, but I digress). From what I understand of the phenomenon, this is a verbal volley of ‘good-natured’ jokes aimed at an individual and all at their expense. Sounds absolutely charming.

It seems that the reason why sarcasm is so successful in the workplace is because it is often associated with high intelligence. A study by the University of Haifademonstrated that the ability to understand sarcasm depends on a carefully orchestrated sequence of complex cognitive skills in specific parts of the brain. Dr Shamay-Tsoory, the psychologist leading the study, said:

“Sarcasm is related to our ability to understand other people’s mental state. It’s not just a linguistic form, it’s also related to social cognition”

Part of the reason for the claim of elevated intellect is that the brain is effectively being exercised more when one is being snarky as opposed to when someone is making a sincere statement. Scientists have proven the theory by monitoring the electrical activity of the brain and found that the grey matter of a smart aleckworks considerably harder when the subject is being sarcastic and even more so when trying to decipher it.

Richard Chin of Smithsonian Magazine describes it as “mental gymnastics”. Sarcastic, satirical or ironic statements all force the brain to think beyond the literal meaning of the words and understand that the speaker may mean something entirely different:

“Just like training your muscles, if you do 50 push-ups a day, over time, your arms are bound to be toned. So sarcasm, as a form of ‘mental exercise’ functions the same way. Over time the extra work leaves our brains toned too”

So should we all turn up to work tomorrow and start being super sardonic with all our work chums? I’d be rather inclined to say no. It seems that any use of sarcasm at work must be used somewhat sparingly unless you want to be labelled a smug, superior smarty pants. So 4 top tips have been kindly provided by the ‘experts’ to ensure your wisecracking doesn’t cut too deeply:

  • Know your audience – that doesn’t just mean you have to understand them, it literally means make sure you know them before you test out your acerbic jibes (unless you like being slapped)
  • Scan before you send – generally don’t send anything facetious in an email or text. For some reason these forms of communication are most often taken literally, not laterally. If you absolutely must, then use a smiley face to make sure the person gets the point you are joking. Unless you are being ironic, then maybe use the emoticon with a wink?
  • Examine your motivations – why do you want to be acidulous? Is it because you have some self-image issues? Feelings of inadequacy versus the recipient of your verbal joust?  If you feel uncomfortable with who you are maybe you shouldn’t use sarcasm. You saddo 😉
  • Err on the side of caution – if you feel your stinger might cause any real offence to the person it’s aimed at or even the people around you, then simply cease and desist

To conclude, if you believe that sarcasm makes you smarter, use it judiciously – as it can cause much more harm than good. After all there is a clue in the title. The derivation of the word sarcasm comes from the Greek phrase sarkazeinIts meaning? To tear off the flesh like dogs. Enough said.

Steve Blakeman
About the author: 

Steve Blakeman is the Managing Director – Global Accounts at OMD Worldwide, and is based in London and Paris.  Previously Steve lead the Asia region for OMD and prior to that he was the Global Chief Integration Strategy Officer (Asia Pacific) for IPG Mediabrands (Initiative & Universal McCann). Mr. Blakeman was recognized by Media Week in their first-ever ’30 Under 30’ people to watch in the industry, and he is a regular judge at award events such as the Cannes Media Lions, AME’s, EFFIE’s, Festival of Media, Cristal Global and Spikes. Follow Steve on Twitter and LinkedIn.