sarcasm and creativity

If I say,

“Sarcasm is a reflection of a person’s creativity,”

and you reply,

“Oh, really? I didn’t know that from years of personal experience,”

then you’ll appreciate this entry.

If, however, you’re more inclined to dismiss this statement as flapdoodle (stay tuned tomorrow to see what that’s all about),

then you’ll probably just want to stop reading … here.

Queen Elizabeth I Feeds the Dutch Cow, artist unknown, via Wikimedia Commons

Few would argue that carelessly-wielded sarcasm has a way of coming off as insensitive, belittling, and even downright offensive. Still, it’s hard to deny the deductions of researchers from multiple business schools, including Harvard and Columbia, who studied sarcasm and discovered a silver lining:

It appears to be a catalyst for creativity, and naturally creative people are more likely to use it.

The seemingly supercilious title of the study, “The highest form of intelligence: Sarcasm increases creativity for both expressers and recipients,” will no doubt needle the naysayers—highest form of intelligence?—but the results speak for themselves.

After participating in conversational situations defined as sarcastic, sincere, or neutral, study participants performed varied tasks to test creativity.

“Those in the sarcasm conditions subsequently performed better on creativity tasks than those in the sincere conditions or the control condition,” reported co-author Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School. “This suggests that sarcasm has the potential to catalyze creativity in everyone.”

Galinsky also added that, in order to successfully spark creativity, sarcasm is best reserved for banter among friends or willing workmates. “We found that, unlike sarcasm between parties who distrust each other, sarcasm between individuals who share a trusting relationship does not generate more contempt than sincerity.”

Now, seriously, in your years of personal experience, have you found this to be true? Are you equally comfortable using sarcasm in a work environment as you are, say, at home? How do others react?

Speak up, sisters …

Leave a comment 12 Comments

  1. Winnie Nielsen says:

    I agree that sarcasm among friends and people you know well is sometimes funny and a way to vent without being disagreeable. In the work environment, however, I think you have to be very careful who you use sarcasm with because sometimes people react differently than when they are outside of work. Most work environments are highly politically charged, and I think sarcasm can be risky and perceived as inflammatory. I found it best to reserve sarcasm, regarding work, to be best kept for times away from work and with people you really trusted.

    • MaryJane says:

      My husband and his boys employ a good dose of sarcasm (pretty hilarious and clever really) but I’ve always referred to it as banter, very loving at its core and truly entertaining to outsiders.

  2. Karlyne says:

    There’s a big difference between sarcasm used for fun (banter, as you say, MJ!) and sarcasm used to wound. As a naturally sarcastic person myself (I always knew I was brilliant! Ha!), I’ve gotten into trouble before because I didn’t know my “audience” well enough. I thought I was being funny; the recipient thought I was being nasty. I have, yes, indeed, learned to curb my tongue with those who either don’t get sarcasm or have a limited sense of humor and those I’m not sure of. It does limit one’s chance to be hilarious, but it’s kinder in general!

  3. Ah Karlyne , you and I are sisters under the skin I think. I come from a very creative ( and equally sarcastic) family. My natural affinity towards sarcasm has indeed gotten me into trouble throughout the years especially in work environments. Good thing I am self employed now! Yep, I think I am being witty and funny and those with no creativity or sense of humor ( well in my opinion anyway) just think I’m mean. Its kind of the story of my life really. I still think I’m funny and can’t reel it in even when I know I should.

    • Karlyne says:

      Oh, Lisa, I do reel it in, most of the time, but dagnabit! I have bitten my lips so hard that sometimes I think the Red Cross must be on its way! And I’m with you again: being self-employed (or semi-retired, as I like to call it) really helps. And when you’re with those who understand you, who get your crazy sense of crazy, well, those are life’s great moments!

      • Karlyne, I do agree that finding people who share our ” sense of crazy ” are nuggets of gold in the friendship circle. So few and far between indeed. And Stephanie G. below is right on the money about interconnectedness .

        • Karlyne says:

          Humor must just be a very personal thing. I know a lot of nice people, people who smile a lot, but who are just thrown for a loop by sarcasm, even the very mild type. Ah, well, to each his own degree of creativity and irony!

  4. Stephanie Guevara says:

    I can see why sarcasm increases creativity. If someone asks, “Would you like to go muck out a stall?” and you reply, “Sure. I’d love to!” and possibly roll your eyes, so much more has been conveyed than this exchange: “Would you like to go muck out a stall?” “No, not really.” The first, sarcastic response invited people in to share humor, their shared dislike of certain tasks that nevertheless have to done, and a sense of understanding and belonging in our common humanity. The second, straightforward and sincere truthful response does not invite participation in sharing. It separates. I ask a question, you answer; we remain unconnected except for an exchange of fact, not feelings. Sarcasm does have to be done in an environment where understanding of your opposite meaning will be seen for what it is; a creative act of looking past the words to the feelings behind them. So, I say, Carry on, Sarcastic Sisters. You are creating connection and a bond. 🙂

    • Karlyne says:

      I’d never thought of it that way! Why, we’re practically saving the world, one sarcastic sister at a time!

  5. Chrissy says:

    Ah, yes, we are sisters indeed. Not being able to be self employed, I’ve had to apologize on many an occasion for wounding sensitive people. Those who really know me, KNOW me, and love me in spite of my tongue moving faster than my brain. My family shared quick responses/quick wit on a regular basis and even at 62, I’m trying to unlearn the habit. I think it’s right that it’s a sign of intelligence, because your mind is always looking at a remark from a different angle than the normal one (kinda like thinking out of the box). That said, the old adage “To err is human, to forgive divine ” is true both for the forgiver and for the forgiven. It is extremely difficult to apologize without divine assistance (and insistence).

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