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Sarcasm can be just plain mean

Published Sep. 9, 1996|Updated Sep. 16, 2005

"There was a certain football player who forgot his helmet and then started talking supply-side theory."

Zinnnng!

That blast from the past was delivered by deficit hawk Bob Dole in a broadside at supply-side true believer Jack Kemp.

Now that Dole has taken Kemp on as his vice presidential running mate _ and decided that tax cuts are more important than deficit reduction _ he's not likely to be hurling put-downs at Kemp on that score.

Count on him, instead, to take some deep bites out of the hide of President Bill Clinton.

Sarcasm is Dole's humor style, and it's a style shared by millions of others.

"A lot of it is how you're brought up," says Fran Friedman, a licensed clinical psychologist in Winter Park. "Humor style can be passed down" in families.

And those who cast a sardonic eye on the world typically enjoy trading barbs with others similarly disposed.

"A lot of people stimulate each other with sarcasm," says Gini Cucuel, a licensed mental health counselor in Winter Park. Their ripostes get sharper and wittier as they go along, and "that's why it's kind of fun."

Webster's New World Dictionary tells us that the word sarcastic "implies intent to hurt by taunting with mocking ridicule, veiled sneers, etc."

All in the guise of humor, of course.

Yet sarcasm often comes across as just plain nastiness.

"Dole's darts have injected about the only amusement there has been in this presidential campaign," political author Neal Gabler wrote. "But far from being rewarded for it, he has been castigated. Dole is called sarcastic, sardonic, mordant and, most often, mean. People seem to think his biting wit bares too many teeth, prompting even his handlers to debate whether to "let Dole be Dole.' "

Gabler attributes the lack of appreciation for Dole's wit to two factors: the rise of political correctness ("It's just too easy for a joke to go awry these days and wind up offending someone") and, even more so, a different perception regarding political campaigns.

In bygone eras, voters and candidates understood that "opponents would swack one another silly," Gabler wrote.

"They understood you unleashed every weapon in your rhetorical arsenal _ from simple name-calling to scathing derision _ and the fire would be returned tenfold. This sort of bushwhacking politics wasn't for delicate sensibilities. It was tough and mean and spiteful _ and, in the process, often very, very funny."

Americans kissed those days goodbye years ago, Gabler asserts.

Campaigns today "are cool news-media performances at which a successful candidate must convince the electorate he is basically harmless, middle of the road, and, thus, unthreateningly presidential."

Snoozers, in other words.

Like so much in life, though, sarcasm can be taken to extremes. If a person wields a sarcastic wit relentlessly, watch out.

"Sometimes it's safer to use sarcasm," says Friedman. "You can hide behind the mask that "It's funny.' But in actuality, there's some anger you're wanting to get out."

Sarcasm also can be a defense mechanism, Cucuel notes _ a way of coping with feelings of anger, vulnerability, fear or insecurity.

"If I get attacked, I'm bound and determined to defend, and sarcasm is a defense," she explains.

The individual spewing sarcasm 24 hours a day may be someone who lives in a perpetual state of defensiveness.

"You're walking around with a vulnerable feeling, so you go defensive before anybody has even triggered your defenses," Cucuel says.

How do you tell the difference between a witty person who happens to use sarcasm and a truly angry, defensive person?

"Separate the humor part and see how the person comes across," says Friedman.

If an individual seems angry and unapproachable most of the time, odds are good that sarcasm is a way of venting that anger rather than just a brand of humor.

Of course, those who find themselves the frequent target of sarcasm by a colleague or loved one may not be amused, no matter what's motivating the wit.

In that case, speak up, tell the person when he or she crosses the line from humor to hurtfulness.

Says Friedman: "Sometimes the sarcastic person doesn't know it's affecting the relationship."

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