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Key Facts About Sarcasm That Can Improve Your Relationships

Understand the purpose behind sarcasm.

Key points

  • Sarcasm is a form of communication intended to convey the opposite of what is literally said.
  • Sarcasm is often considered a passive-aggressive form of anger.
  • When sarcasm is especially biting and pervasive, it undermines trust and promotes disconnection.

Sarcasm is a form of communication intended to convey the opposite of what is literally said. It is most often used to criticize someone, e.g., stating, “You’re really good at this!” to a friend who threw the bowling ball down the gutter. However, perhaps less frequently, it can be used to praise, e.g., saying, “Yeah, you really are so bad at this,” to a friend who just bowled three consecutive strikes.

As an anger management specialist, I’ve heard about many conflicts that include the use of sarcasm. As such expressions are grounded in a combination of humor and anger, I’ve often referred to sarcasm as half of a cup of humor combined with half of a cup of anger. Yet, I’ve come to recognize that the percentage of each may vary for individuals and the situation.

Sarcasm may be used in personal relationships and the workplace. Some of us may only rarely express sarcasm, while it may dominate the conversations of others. Being indirect through sarcasm can achieve various goals, from highlighting the humor of a situation to verbal aggression. It can tone down the impact of more direct criticism or lessen the degree of praise experienced by the target (Filik et al., 2015).

Research supports the notion that trait anger (entailing an ongoing disposition toward anger arousal) is associated with sarcasm (Szymaniak, 2020). Additionally, greater use of sarcasm is associated with grandiose narcissism but not with vulnerable narcissism (Kalowski, 2021).

Sarcasm is often considered a passive-aggressive form of anger that might typically be used by an individual who experiences intense discomfort with a more direct expression of anger or the feelings behind it. It’s often the case that when confronted by the target of sarcasm, an individual might defensively voice in an incredulous tone, “I was only kidding.”

To some extent, this response might be viewed as an expression of “gaslighting,” suggesting that something is wrong with the interpreter rather than owning the anger.

Detecting Sarcasm

When observed in person or by means of video, detecting sarcasm involves attention to the tone, facial expression, and cadence of the communication. Research suggests that movement of the mouth area is most helpful for distinguishing between sarcasm and non-sarcasm (Rockwell, 2001).

Detecting sarcasm in written expression can be especially challenging. With the explosion of social media, there has been an increase in studies determined to recognize sarcasm in print. These require elaborate study of context and language and involve the development of complex algorithms to identify sarcasm.

123rf Stock Photo/aliiaarskanova
Angry man
Source: 123rf Stock Photo/aliiaarskanova

Collectivism, Individualism, and Sarcasm

Men are more often sarcastic than women, perhaps reflecting their tendency to mask their feelings. Additionally, men are more sarcastic when interacting with men than women (Rockwell, 2009). By contrast, women are more frequently sarcastic when interacting with men than other women. And, individuals who are collectivists (prioritizing group cohesion over individual pursuits) were less sarcastic than individualists, those who prioritize their independence and freedom.

Similarly, research involving 344 adults found that respondents from the United States and Mexico, both higher in individualism, reported more sarcasm than those from China, a country high in collectivism (Blasko et al., 2021). It’s interesting to note that respondents from all three countries indicated they use sarcasm “to be funny” and to have fun with friends.”

Sarcasm in Personal Relationships

When the anger component of sarcasm is especially intense, it’s helpful to understand our motivation for being sarcastic. Are we unable to admit to being angry? When used in this manner, especially if frequent, it may serve as a defense against revealing our true feelings, inhibiting our authenticity in even our most intimate relationships.

I’ve often observed how sarcasm reflects underlying resentment, often related to some form of hurt. And while it may feel good for the moment, extensive sarcasm may only exacerbate the likelihood of feeling hurt. When sarcasm is more pervasive, its anger is more difficult for the recipient to ignore.

It creates tension and undermines the trust of a partner as it may promote a sense of disconnection and betrayal. It’s often difficult to hear a partner reveal anger toward us, but it is even more challenging when that anger is denied.

When intense and pervasive, it is important that the recipient call it out. Not doing so can further undermine assertive communication and fuel a sense of isolation that builds resentment.

Observers may attend to different aspects of sarcastic communication (Bowes, 2010). This was reflected by participants who read a transcript of either a sarcastic or non-sarcastic argument between two individuals of the same gender. Participants viewed the negative comment as more humorous and less aggressive when taking the perspective of the aggressor than when taking the victim's perspective.

While sarcasm in the workplace can foster conflict amongst employees, more than one study suggests that it can enhance creativity and abstract thinking (Li et al., 2015). This research found that both those who expressed sarcasm and recipients of it–when expressed by a trusted other–evidenced increased creativity.

The Neuroscience of Sarcasm

Imaging of individuals detecting sarcasm in a written scenario suggests activation of the medial prefrontal cortex (Uchiyama, 2006). This area is associated with mentalizing, the ability to understand other people’s behavior in terms of their mental states.

Another study highlighted the increased difficulty in detecting sarcasm for those individuals with greater neurodegenerative disease (Shany-Ur et al., 2012). Their findings were based on research involving reports of 102 patients with various neurodegenerative diseases who viewed videos of social interaction involving sarcasm. As such, this research further suggests that a specific neural network is necessary for perceiving social nuance and predicting social outcomes.

Compared to younger and middle-aged participants, one study found that older adults evidenced poorer understanding of sarcastic intent when responding to a video task depicting examples of sarcasm (Phillips et al., 2015).

Regional Differences in Using Sarcasm

One study of cultural differences in the use of sarcasm included 208 college students, some from colleges in upstate New York and others from the University of Memphis in Tennessee (Dress et al. 208). It found that northerners more frequently used sarcasm than southerners.

Additionally, the northern group was more likely to view sarcasm as humorous. Participants were asked to read various scenarios between two individuals, ending with one character making a statement, but the statement was left blank. Participants were asked to indicate a response to complete the scenario.

While intended to communicate the opposite of what is really said, sarcasm offers two messages simultaneously. It is part of communication in our relationships and those at work. However, it’s important to remember that regardless of its origins, the sarcastic person may evaluate its impact as being more benign than how the recipient rates it. A deep sense of trust can help mediate its negative impact.

However, when sarcasm is used frequently and is intensely biting, it is important to look deeper into its origins to recognize blocks to being more authentic. Additionally, the recipient in such circumstances needs to call it out when it occurs and address its impact. A failure to do so may only undermine the trust essential for a healthy relationship.


Filik, R., Turcan, A., Thompson, D., et. al., (2015). Sarcasm and emoticons: Comprehensive emotional impact. The quarterly journal of experimental psychology. Vol.69, 11, 2130-2134.

Szymaniak, K. and Kalowski, P. (2020). Trait anger and sarcasm use. Personality and Individual Differences, 154,

Kalowski, P, Szymaniak, K., and Maciantowicz, O, (2021). Exploring the links between trait anger, self-reported sarcasm use, and narcissism. Advances in Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 17 (4), 261-273. DOI•10.5709/acp-0335-6

Rockwell, P., (2001). Facial expression and sarcasm. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 93, 47-50.

Rockwell, P. and Theriot, E., (2001). Culture, gender and gender mix in encoders of sarcasm: A self-assessment analysis. Communication Research Reports, Vol. 18, 1, 44-52, published online: 2009.

Blasko, D., Kazmerski, V., and Dawood, S., (2021). Saying what you don’t mean: A cross-cultural study of perceptions of sarcasm. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, Vol. 75, 2,

Bowes, A. and Katz, A. (2010). When sarcasm stings. Discourse Processes, Vol. 48, 4, 215-236.

Li, H., Gino, F., and Galinsky, A., (2015). The highest form of intelligence: Sarcasm increases creativity for expressers and recipients. Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Vol 131, No, 1, November, 162-177.

Uchiyama, H., Seki, A., Kageyama, H., et. al., (2006). Neural substrates of sarcasm: A functional magnetic-resonance imaging study. Brain Research. Vol. 1134, 1, 100-110.

Shany-Ur, T., Poorzand, P., Grossman, S., et. al., (2012). Comprehension of insincere communication in neurodegenerative disease: Lies, sarcasm, and theory of mind. Cortex, Vol. 48, 10, 1329-1341.

Phillips, L., Allen, R. and Bull, R., (2015). Older adults have difficulty in decoding sarcasm. Developmental Psychology, Vol. 51, 12, 1840-1852.

Dress, M. and Kreuz, R., (2008) Use of sarcasm. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, Vol 27, 3, 71-85.S

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