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A new study looks at sarcasm

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I was in Spain when the World Trade Center was bombed on 9/11. The following three weeks were strange, to say the least. Everywhere I went, people expressed their sympathy to me. But it was also obvious that a wave of paranoia was sweeping the entire globe.

The paranoia was at its worst in airports. In Madrid, as I waited in line to check my baggage for my trip home, someone wearing a uniform approached me and asked if I was carrying any sharp objects. I replied, in Spanish: "just my tongue."

Funny, eh? Not. I was immediately escorted to an office where I was grilled for 30 minutes. The idiomatic expression – "sharp tongue" – apparently doesn't translate well into Spanish and the more I tried to explain it, the more agitated my interrogators got. (It didn't help when they found a book with an Arabic title in my luggage.)

Eventually, they let me board the plane, whose departure I had helped delay more than an hour.

Sarcasm. It's my first language, learned from my mother. The word derives from the Greek for tearing flesh, gnashing the teeth and speaking bitterly. Of course, that's just one aspect of its contemporary meaning. Sarcasm can sting but it's usually meant mainly to be funny. Sometimes, though, it stings more than it amuses, depending on the receptivity of the person to whom it's directed.

My own use of sarcasm is so prolific that my friend Jeff calls himself my "translator." Apparently, people who don't know me tend to take me seriously when I'm being sarcastic. If Jeff is around, he will literally step between me and the confused person I'm talking to and warn them not to take me seriously. No matter how often this occurs, it still surprises me that people take me seriously at all.

Years ago, an older woman, a junk dealer, became something of a guru to some of my friends. She told me that I needed to temper my sarcasm. "It's obviously a defense," she said. "You've developed it in order to avoid your real feelings." I've heard one variation or another of this pathologizing argument as long as I can remember. It's from the textbook for Pop Psychology 101.

Still, I did try to reduce my sarcasm back then, at least when I was around the guru. It wasn't long before I felt brain-dead in her presence and, ultimately, I realized that her problem with my sarcasm was that it detracted attention from her and deflated her considerable pomposity. I decided to swear off her company instead of further dulling the pointy tip of my tongue.

Happily, a recent study dismisses the idea that sarcasm is always a neurotic defense. Neurophysiologist Katharine Rankin has determined that understanding sarcasm is a natural function of our brains and is fundamental to so-called social intelligence. Her brain-imaging studies suggest, too, that a person who is unable to recognize sarcasm has a malfunctioning parahippocampal gyrus, which is located in the right brain.

In other words, it's not the sarcastic person who is retarded. It's the person who doesn't get the sarcasm.

Rankin argues that the capacity to detect and appreciate sarcasm is part of our species' evolution, allowing us to sting and amuse someone at once, helping to smooth over conflicts. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Stephen Colbert, who impersonates a conservative pundit on his TV show, "The Colbert Report." By asking sarcastic questions of guests on his show, he makes us laugh and empathize a bit with his victims. But most importantly, his sarcasm ends up enlightening us in a way that straightforward discussion rarely does.

Still, one wonders why Colbert's guests subject themselves to his sarcasm. If Rankin's findings are correct, perhaps it's because the brain is aware sarcasm's primary function is to connect people with a joke, so that the fundamental disagreement is less pointed.

None of this is to say that sarcasm can't go over the top. Indeed, that's the big risk of using it. Eventually, every sarcast offends someone – or gets mistaken for a terrorist in an airport.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.

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