Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Effective Responses to Hurtful Sarcasm

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/sarcasm.htm

Updated  01-31-2015

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An "effective response" occurs when you get your primary needs met well enough, and both people feel respected enough.

      This article offers (a) perspective on sarcasm and (b) useful ways to respond to an overly-sarcastic person. The article assumes you're familiar with...


      Try defining sarcasm out loud, as tho to a young teen. How about "sarcasm is an attitude and way of speaking or writing where the words, tone, and facial expression imply scorn or criticism." If someone is sarcastic (a) to you or (b) to someone else in  your presence, how do you feel? Do you agree that sarcasm can be funny or hurtful, depending on the context? It can also be occasional or over-done. Do you ever use sarcasm to entertain or to hurt?

      Hurtful sarcasm is a way of putting someone or something down without directly insulting them. It usually implies an irritating "I'm 1-up" (superior) attitude and body language. It provides a way for the speaker to deny their criticism and avoid owning their attitude (a double message). Excessive or hurtful sarcasm usually indicates the person is ruled by a false self, and doesn't know how to assert and problem-solve respectfully.

      Chronic or excessive humorous sarcasm may indicate the person needs to deny some painful realities, or doesn't know how to be genuine. It can become irritating and frustrating because it blocks serious conversations. For effective responses to someone who uses sarcasm to entertain or avoid being real "too much," see this.

      If sarcasm hurts you, how do you respond? Seethe (repress)? Return the sarcasm? Criticize? Complain? Whine? Get angry? Grimace? Shut down? Smile? Joke? Numb out? Change the subject? Leave? After responding, do you feel satisfied, or something else? What are the young people in your life learning about how to respond to hurtful sarcasm? Is there a best way to respond?

Response Options

      If there is someone in your life who is "significantly sarcastic" in your opinion, keep them in mind as you consider these options. Review these baseline options, and select from these:

  • Check to see that you true Self is guiding you. If not, make achieving that your first priority.

  • Check your attitude about you and the sarcastic person. If it's mutual respect, then go ahead. Otherwise, suspect that a false self controls you.

  • Remind yourself that your feelings, needs, and opinions are just as valid as the sarcastic person's.

  • Estimate whether the sarcastic person is ruled by a false self now or often. If so, consider these options.

  • Identify specifically what you feel because of the sarcasm - Hurt? Resentment? Irritation? Anger? Anxiety? Weariness?  Each emotion is a valid, reliable pointer to what you need.

  • Decide what you want to accomplish by responding: To vent?  Cause action? Provide constructive feedback? Blame or attack? Complain? Problem-solve? Something else? Mentally review your definition of ''an effective response.''

  • Depending on your relationship and communication goals, calmly choose one or more responses like these:

"(Name), are you open to some feedback now?"

"I experience you as sarcastic right now. Are you aware of that?"

"When you choose a sarcastic attitude (toward me), I feel __________________ (and I need you to _______________ )."

"When you use that tone of voice with me, I feel disrespected, hurt, and angry."

"When you need to be sarcastic, I lose respect for you."

"Are you aware of why you need to be sarcastic about ____________?"

"I'm bothered by what the kids are learning from your hurtful sarcasm."

"I sense that your true Self has been disabled by a sarcastic subself."

"If you continue to be sarcastic, I'm going to (describe a specific action you'll take)."

"(Name), I don't find your sarcasm funny at all. It hurts."

  • Expect normal "resistance" to your response, like...

    • excuses ("I can't help it"),

    • indignation ("Who are you to criticize me?")

    • denial ("I'm not being sarcastic!")

    • accusations ("Why are you so thin-skinned? Can't you take a joke?")

    • diversions ("What's for dinner?")

    • complaining ("There you go again...")

  • Acknowledge each resistance with empathic listening, and calmly repeat your response until you get your needs met or your needs change. Avoid arguing - this is not a contest!

      Pause and reflect - what are you thinking and feeling now? Can you imagine responding like this to hurtfully-sarcastic adults and kids? How do you think they would feel and respond to you?


      This is one of a series of brief articles suggesting effective ways to respond to common annoying social behaviors. This article offers (a) brief perspective on humorous and hurtful sarcasm, and (b) ways to respond effectively to hurtful sarcasm. The ways are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity on your feelings, needs, and mutual rights, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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