Sarcasm: Charming or Jeopardizing Emotional Trust?


by Michele Morrissey

British philosopher J.L. Austin stated, “We use speech to do things, not just talk about things.”  Veiled speech acts such as jokes, unsolicited nicknames, or sarcasm can undermine the very work that communication aims to accomplish. In the words of communication expert Dalton Kehoe, “In communication, we always want to know what is happening, what is going to happen, and how we are being treated.”  Sarcasm can rob the interactions of transparency and emotional safety, as well as interrupt the flow of mutual respect.

The authors of  Crucial Conversations,  identify sarcasm as a masking behavior.  A masking behavior is said to “selectively show our true opinions.” The communication partner on the receiving end of  sarcasm may perceive an attempt to diminish their sense of status. The communicator using sarcasm is risking being tolerated or resented.  The conversation may lose a collaborative focus, transitioning from connect talk to control talk.


A Little Perspective Taking Can Help

What and how we communicate are largely a result of the confluence of perceptions, emotions, emerging thoughts, and habits of thinking. Perspective taking can keep us from taking others’ communication behaviors personally.  Use of sarcasm may be a matter of style or could be rooted in  other factors.   Behaviorist Vanessa Van Edwards cites insecurity, latent anger, and social awkwardness as possible sources of sarcasm. She also refers to sarcasm as a passive-aggressive way to assert dominance.  Szymaniak and Kalowski, 2020 offers this,  “Sarcasm can indirectly express aggression, though it might be more cognitively demanding to produce.”

Relationship management requires skill and patience. Try to do a little perspective taking rather than rushing to offense. When we are offended, it’s easier to create a victim-villain narrative. Making your communication partner a bad guy is more likely to compel you to be defensive if messaging feels like a face-threatening act.  Perspective taking, if nothing else, may keep listeners from considering their communication partner to be a villain of sort. Self-advocacy expressed through assertive and sincere communication is useful to establish boundaries and set the tone.


Interpersonal Trust is the Key

Trust takes time to build and should not be taken for granted.  Valued relationships require consistency and emotional safety to build trust. When my sons joked and jested in their younger years, I would often say, “If the other party isn’t laughing, it’s not funny.” When communication partners are familiar with each other, there may be an assumption that the other knows they are revered, loved, liked, etc. That assumption may be taken as permission to take liberties.  Sarcasm can be a culture killer. A University of Arkansas study described use of sarcasm as “incivil” and contagious (2016).  Know the boundaries of playfulness have been crossed.

Huang, Gino, and Galinsky (2015) suggested sarcasm may actually promote creativity, given the demands on abstract thinking for speaker and listener.  They mentioned “interpersonal trust” as a key element if sarcasm is used.   In our quest to know how we are being treated, offense is less likely to be drawn where trust is established. If sarcasm is a part of your communication style, just make sure emotional trust and safety are established.

Why risk being tolerated?  Transparency builds trust. Trust grows and deepens personal and professional relationships.  Always remember the goal of your interaction.  If sarcasm will potentially jeopardize clarity of purpose or relationships, question whether this is the best usage of your opportunity to connect, be productive, and develop mutually beneficial relationships.



What’s a Communicator to Do? 

  • Tips for those who use sarcasm:
    • Ask yourself if the relationship can handle it. If the relationship is new or there is a trust deficit, consider holding the sarcasm.
    • Reflect on why you use sarcasm (What are you trying to do?)
    • Consider asking those who know you well, whose opinion you trust, about their observations and experiences relative to your use of sarcasm. Be open for accountability.
    • Be aware of non-verbal signals that may indicate you may have gone a bit too far.
    • Note the language of those who are able to express themselves in a manner that seems sincere
    • As the cliche goes, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.”
  • Tips for those on the receiving end of sarcasm who may be offended:
    • If the relationship is a short term one (transactional, no long-term goals), consider ignoring the comment.
    • Remain emotionally constant. Keep the business at hand the focus of the conversation.
    • If the use of sarcasm is offensive or distracts from the purpose for communication, especially with long-term relationships, it’s time to have a    Avoidance is not an option. Silence is likely to develop into internal discord or stress responses.
    • Manage the one person you have control over – you! Consider viewing the speaker as, “Someone who uses sarcasm,” versus saying, “They are sarcastic.”  It may sound trivial however, the former allows us to be open to seeing other positive or productive traits.   The latter defines them.
    • Be clear about boundaries and what are willing to accept



Michele is passionate about helping her clients uncover and navigate complex interpersonal dynamics, which is accomplished when they use research-based methods to understand their personality and motivations, as well as their communication partners and audiences. The result is delivering messages of impact and influence.

Michele has over two decades of experience as an educational and corporate speech-language pathologist, and has collaborated with educators, executives, and industry leaders to develop their own communication styles and voices infused with intentionality and influence. Michele’s areas of expertise also include interpersonal skills and social communication. Her approach focuses on the primary purposes of communication -to connect, relate, and influence- and how clients can maximize their impact through increasing self-awareness and social awareness.

She earned a master’s degree in speech-language pathology from the University of Pittsburgh, and a bachelor’s degree in communication sciences and disorders from Hampton University. She is also a P-ESL certified accent modification trainer, and holds a Certificate of Clinical Competence from the American Speech-Language Hearing Association.

“I ensure that my clients are equipped with core competencies in self-awareness and interpersonal communications, which facilitates their ability to relate, connect, and influence across settings and situations.”







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