I got into an interesting discussion today and thought I would pose this question. "What is the difference between the use of sarcasm and just being mean?" This came up in a conversation about the differences between sarcasm, verbal irony, and sarcastic tone. Any thoughts or examples?
Sarcasm requires an intelligence to be understood. Low level students would take sarcasm as meaness. Context and body language/facial expressions help take the sting from a sarcastic comment. Teachers must be very careful and know their students well for a quip to not hurt someone's feelings.
I think it usually does have a least a small amount of meanness to it, but for me it is the reason it is being used that makes a difference. If it is used to make a point it is much more acceptable to me--even if I am the brunt of the joke. Otherwise, it is just an excuse to be nasty.
Sarcasm can be funny, or well-taken, or yes, mean. I think the trouble with sarcasm and why teachers are encouraged not to use it has to do with students who perceive it as mean. For the most part, when we use it, we do so to reach a goal or purpose and it is another avenue by which to make a student think.
Sarcasm and meanness are linguistic cousins that occasionally function as subsets of one another.
Sarcasm is a sophisticated literary and linguistic device used to prove a point. It might also be mean-spirited, but sarcasm is not necessarily mean.
Meanness is used to injure someone emotionally. A mean remark might be couched in sarcasm, or it might be an explicit insult. But it is always intended to hurt.
Sarcasm involves wit. It must be biting. funny, and pointed. Joan Rivers, I think, is a master of sarcasm. Sarcasm and irony are not the same. One can be sarcastic without being ironic and vice versa. Irony is saying the opposite of what one means. Of course, sarcasm can use irony. Sarcasm can be directed at an institution, a procedure, a country, or a practice. It does not have to be directed toward an individual. In other words, sarcasm is not always mean. Look at the Daily Show. Sarcasm is frequently used there. It is usually directed toward a foolish remark made by a politician, highlighting the inconsistencies of his/her position. It isn't necessarily mean but it is funny.
Having lived in very different geographical areas of the U.S., there seems to be a marked difference in geographic senses of humor. In the Southeast, for instance, sarcasm is not well received, being perceived as cruel humor meant to belittle whereas in the Midwest and the Northeast sarcasm is served as one sends a ping pong ball--to be returned. And, even among strangers, sarcasm can be used on certain topics if people feel the same about them. In fact, sarcastic humor is so prevalent and enjoyed in some areas that when people move to another, they are startled by the negative reactions of others. Certainly, humor divides as much as it unites.
One observation: Higher level students enjoy stories with sarcasm, laughing aloud, but others will comment, "That character has a smart mouth" or some other deprecatory statement and never laugh as the story is read.
I'm with clairewaite. Sarcasm really only works when someone can recognize it as sarcasm. If we don't have such a relationship, my comments will necessarily be heard as unkind or mean. Tone of voice and body language can help, but generally words matter in our world. That means we have to make our words count, and that means we should probably rely less on sarcasm (which is often phrased as the opposite of what we mean) and more on what we do mean.
I think the difference is RELATIONSHIP - do you have a relationship with the recipient of the sarcasm?
Sometimes even in a close relationship sarcasm can BE mean - but generally it is not intentional. I am a highly sarcastic person - and I've had to really work on building relationships with students so that my classroom sarcasm isn't taken in the wrong way. I've also had to be very careful to use my sarcasm against institutions rather than individuals. Don't get me wrong - I do use it with individuals - typically when I'm seeking a particular behavioral change - and in those instances - the relationship I have with the student makes all the difference in the world.
I think sarcasm is generally used in a somewhat humorous manner. Sarcastic comments can come off as mean, but their general usage is meant to elicit a laugh. Out-and-out meanness does not require a humorous touch.
I'm sorry that I can't give you any literary examples, but I think that the only difference between sarcasm and just plain meanness is context. You can only be sarcastic without being mean if you are talking to people with whom you have a good relationship. They have to know that you are just trying to be funny. Otherwise, the exact same words will come across as mean...