The Varieties of Sarcastic Experience


The year was 1973.  I was living in Berkeley.  I had eased my transition from the student world to the working world by moving to a city dominated by a big university.  Then I got my first full-time job: driving a delivery truck and doing miscellaneous errands for an alarm company in Oakland.  What a shock!  Suddenly, I went from being a long-haired hippie English Major to a clean-cut guy in a uniform, with my name stitched on the pocket. 

I’d been working there for about a year when I was literally struck with an insight about sarcasm.

One of my tasks was cleaning up and repainting used alarm bell boxes.  They were steel and roughly 18 inches wide, 18 inches high and 6 inches deep.  The front was a hinged cover with vents and a sign advertising the alarm company.  Inside was a round brass bell.  They were very heavy and awkward to handle. 

On the day in question, I was putting the newly-painted bell boxes on a high shelf in a covered portion of the parking lot.  This involved climbing up an 8-foot ladder while holding the bell box, then lifting it over my head while standing on the ladder (look ma, no hands) and pushing it into position on the shelf.  Did I mention that the bell boxes were heavy? 

My boss, Irv, and the receptionist, Carla, were in the parking lot schmoozing and watching me struggle up and down the ladder.  After schlepping nine bell boxes, I was a dizzy and my arms were aching.  I lifted the tenth over my head but couldn’t get it far enough onto the shelf.  I began to lose my balance.  It slipped out of my hands and slammed into my head. 

Carla sneered, “That was graceful.”

Irv drily commented, “Hey, be careful you don’t dent those boxes.”

Eventually, despite my stunned state, I was able to lift the box off of my head and set it down on the ground.  I bought a coke out of the vending machine in the break room and pressed it against the golf ball-sized knot forming on my scalp.  I pondered the difference between what Carla and Irv had said.

  • Carla’s had said the inverse of what was true.  Clearly, if she had said, “That was not graceful” it wouldn’t have been funny.
  • Irv had said something completely insensitive.  Again, “Hey, don’t hurt yourself” would not have been funny.

Of course, this begged the question, why did they feel compelled to say something funny when I got hit in the head?  I already knew the answer to that – because it happened to me, not them.  Comedy is tragedy plus distance.

A whack on the head (as Zen masters know) can lead to insight.  On the BART train home that night, I extrapolated a general theory of sarcasm from the specifics of this incident:

  • Female sarcasm consists of saying the opposite of what you mean in order to mock someone or something.
  • Male sarcasm consists of saying the cruelest thing you can think of regarding a situation – a sort of machismo of ridicule. 

I shared my “insight” with roommates and friends.  The guys laughed but, this being Berkeley in 1973, the women went ballistic.  Typically, before being denounced as a Male Chauvinist Pig [a common phrase back then that you don’t hear so much anymore, although probably not because MCPs have disappeared], they would say something like “Yeah… that’s brilliant!”  The first time I got that response, I pointed out that she was saying the opposite of what she meant in order to mock me.  I did not repeat that mistake! 

A few years later, after abandoning a career in the alarm business in favor of attending graduate school in English Lit at San Francisco State, I wrote a paper on the topic of sarcasm.  Far deeper thinkers than me had analyzed and parsed this stuff to death.  Research revealed that what I had labeled “female sarcasm” was irony – specifically, verbal irony.  What I had called “male sarcasm” was regular old, garden variety sarcasm. 

In retrospect, I find it quite ironic that my theory of sarcasm inspired such a hostile response from women.  Their reaction seems to indicate that they assumed I felt being cruel was superior to being oblique and, therefore, I was being a sexist.  To respond to that assumption I will quote the Random House Dictionary:

“Irony differs from sarcasm in greater subtlety and wit.  In sarcasm, ridicule or mockery is used harshly, often crudely and contemptuously, for destructive purposes.”1

 So… what can we learn from this?

  • The recommended daily allowance of irony varies by gender.
  • Don’t hire an English Major for any job that requires lifting heavy objects. 

For those of you who want to learn more, check out the Sarcasm Society™:

Their motto:  “We would love to hear what you think!”



4 Responses to “The Varieties of Sarcastic Experience”

  1. 1 Loek

    Brilliant post; no pun intended. Irony is acceptable in civilized communication, but it requires a sense of humor. Sarcasm – well, if the targeted person or group is someone I despise, no problem. How about satire? I recall a definition of ridicule, as being the very lightest method of slapping you hard in the face. Both in satire and sarcasm ridicule is a key ingredient. In both cases the effect can be devastating. I prefer satire, though. It’s much wittier, and usually much funnier than sarcasm.
    Btw, I was in Berkeley that year, for a week in early August. Staying with a friend, meeting her friends, and having discussions. Yes, those were the days of male-female debates. So I can vividly imagine you sharing your new insghts with your roommates.

  2. 2 JIm Laffan

    Yes, well, that’s one way of looking at it. And probably closer to the truth than my own theory, based on listening to people ahead of me in line at the Co-op give their six-digit customer IDs: women break the number down 3+3, guys always do it 2+2+2. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean women have these brains that EVOLVED to hold more information cause they’re taking care of a bunch of kids in the cave when we’re off in single minded pursuit of meat. PLUS they enjoy conversation more, right? So they got this FLOW going that guys can’t match because….

    It all seemed so perfect. The more I thought about it, the more pieces of the puzzle fell into place. (And, come to think of it; women not only remember long strings of numbers, they never FORGET anything either–just try getting drunk some time and coming home shit-faced; you are NEVER gonna hear the last of THAT, pardner.)

    Just as in your example, my male friends were sympathetic (Wow, never thought about it but shit, you’re right! Can’t wait to try this out at parties!) and the women were scornful. (All except the woman at the checkout. She disputed my theory based on her own observations, but at least she did so respectfully.) In the end, it was almost as if Women resented the fact that I had found the very nub, the sub-atomic particle that differentiated them from Men. Sad, but as I consoled myself afterwards, So Typical.

    Well Genius is never recognized in its own time. As I recall, you got busted on the head with a bottle of Kahlua at some later point on the sidewalk in LA, trying to make a perfectly valid point to your soon-to-be-ex girlfriend about the way men and women deal with breakups. Using the textbook definitions above, I suppose you’d have to call that Irony, but if it were me, I would have called the cops.

  3. Well, JIm, we both made the (tempting) mistake of generalizing based on personal anecdotal evidence.
    More disconcerting… if, based on your personal experience, you think the difference between men and women is a “nub” or “sub-atomic particle,” you may want to check out Enzyte, “the once-daily tablet for natural male enhancement.” To be fair and balanced, the company that originally manufactured Enzyte was forced into bankruptcy after the CEO and his mother (make up your own Oedipal joke) were sentenced to prison for conspiracy to commit mail fraud, bank fraud, and money laundering.
    For the record — since T.E. sometimes reads this blog — the bottle of Kahlua broke, but not on my head. Those bottles are pretty heavy, not unlike alarm bell boxes, but that time there was no knock upside the head… and no particular insight either.

  4. 4 JIm Laffan

    Wrong again. That Kahlua was SARCASM, not irony! But Theresa was a girl, wasn’t she???? Then how could a girl…? I don’t get it.

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