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Sarcasm – Is It A Symptom Of Disengagement Or A Powerful Productivity Tool? No, Really…

Recognizing sarcasm (and other emotions) is a skill linked to other productive skills

Recognizing sarcasm (and other emotions) is a skill linked to other productive skills

This article by Richard Chin at Smithsonian Magazine discusses how our relative ability to identify and interpret sarcasm reveals, to an extent, how our brains process communication. I wonder how this skill, or lack thereof, impacts the potential engagement and productivity of our employees? I wonder if its something we’re born and stuck with, or whether it can taught and learned? Not the sarcasm per se but how some people are better than others at comprehending multiple layers of communication in this increasingly saturated world of communication in which we’re trying to make a living. Often the message isn’t really the message. It’d save a lot of time, money and heartache if people could ‘get’ that quicker.

Apparently when used in conversation the phrase “Yeah, right” is done so sarcastically 23% of the time. Maybe it’s a cultural thing in my country but I find that figure staggeringly low! When would anyone ever use it genuinely? For those of you not from New Zealand reading this, there is a New Zealand beer brand whose primary advertising campaign has been built around this phrase for a decade. Billboards with their logo have a comment on the left side and on the right side is the simple phrase, “Yeah, right.” (I’m writing this from memory. I’m thinking they probably didn’t use the comma.) Often these are verbatim comments from politicians or celebrities or things that real people say, “Hey babe, I’m sure no one at the office knows about us…” – Yeah, right.

I know a lot of advertisers claim their campaigns have become iconic and entered the zeitgeist etc but in New Zealand, seriously, ask anyone, everyone gets this. New born infants first words are often, “Yeah, right.” (Usually after being told, “Welcome to the world.”)

The criticism of sarcasm itself by the readers of Chin’s article revolve mainly around the issue of hierarchy. Sarcasm between equals is funny. Sarcasm between people of unequal power is either mean or bolshy, depending on which end of the power you’re on. The Greek root for sarcasm, sarkazein, means to tear flesh like dogs. Ouch!

Rightly or wrongly, New Zealand presents itself as an egalitarian land so maybe that’s why we’re so enamoured with sarcasm? (Nice haircut by the way.)

I recently ran a sales training programme for a group of reasonably experienced salespeople who sold large, costly capital equipment that often needed to be on-sold-in to decision makers within the purchasing company. That is to say, a committee or board. Part of our programme included anticipating and dealing with objections. Often, there are delays and barriers and excuses throughout a negotiation process and I found some research that implied that 70% of the reasons given for such objections were not the actual reasons. So, it would seem that the ability to read between the lines and to interpret subtext are very valuable skills with tangible financial and measurable consequences. It struck me as I started reading Chin’s article about sarcasm that some people are naturally attuned to picking the non-obvious emotion in statements and some people aren’t. Having Leonard from TV’s ‘The Big Bang Theory’ hold up a sign that reads ‘sarcasm’ so the austistic Sheldon can understand Penny is funny but unfortunately impractical for us in our workplaces. Fortunately we can all learn how to do this better in a work context. It can be taught. It can be learned. My sales people trainees found that out.

We could get into a long argument about the smarts of recruiting employees who already have the skills we’re looking for and how many employers totally over rely on recruiting for specific technical skills rather than attributes that actually lead to longterm success such as ‘fit’ and ‘perseverance’ and so forth. Here’s another one. Although I advise against being sarcastic to applicants in job interviews. That’s definitely one of those inappropriate power-imbalance situations!

Anyone who ever said that two positives cannot make a negative has obviously never heard the phrase, “Yeah, right.”

Positive Thinking Can Set You Up To Fail

There are limits to optimism

There are limits to optimism

Heidi Grant Halvorson in her recent Psychology Today article made the bold statement, “Positive Thinking and vision boards can set you up to fail.” Susan Krauss Whitbourne also wrote about the trouble with optimism. Both rightly pointed out the faults of positive thinking and optimism if they were the only strategies being used. I’d agree with that. Positive thinking and optimism are tools. Used correctly they’re perfectly useful. A hammer is a tool. Use it for banging in nails and it’s perfectly useful too. Use a hammer for brushing your teeth and serious damage can ensue. It’s not the fault of the hammer…

Whitbourne refers to studies on optimists and pessimists in stressor situations and the different coping mechanisms employed. Two were ’emotion-focused’ coping and ‘problem-focused’ coping. It’s not immediately helpful but I like the findings as they fit in nicely with my world view. There is no one best way of coping. It depends. Sometimes it’s best to focus on the emotion, looking on the bright side etc. Sometimes, it’s best on trying to solve the problem or minimise the damage. What it depends on is how much control you have over the situation at the time. If it’s beyond your control, focus on your emotions. If there’s still something you can do, make the effort.

Some useful tips were to be realistic, look out for the changeability in situations, find sources of social support and look after your immune system. I like the latter two especially as they require us to be prepared and work on our resources before we hit the inevitable stressor situations that life throws at us. Sometimes s**t happens. Even Victor Frankl back in the day identified that as a common trait among successful and resilient people – the belief that sometimes s**t happens and we deal with it and move on. People expecting life to constantly throw them a parade and sprinkle rose petals in front of them as they stroll are going to hit some speedbumps and some pretty serious disappointments in work and life.

It’s not that Halvorson is a raving fan of negativity. She stresses that the right kind of negative thought employed in a practical action-oriented way can move people towards goals. But it isn’t just done by the thinking of the thought. Focus is important as it does affect how our brains perceive what’s going on around us – even if it is just looking out for the luck and the opportunities that are always there. I’ve found even a physiological cross-over. One day I won the lowest prize on lotto – about $36. Nevertheless it put me in a good mood for a time, radiating a bit of positive thinking. Then I noticed that my ceiling corners needed the spiders webs cleaned out of them. Why? Because I was looking up! People in positive moods look up. I wonder if the reverse is true, that looking up can put a person into a more positive mood? Might go Google that now. (Having said all that, I have a few down times and I never then notice that my carpets need vacuuming…)

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