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.”