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« 22. Keeping your cool with sarcasm: EQ skills 1-5 »

Written by Rachel Green. Director, The Emotional Intelligence Institute. Author of "How to develop emotional resilience and manage your emotions".

Sarcasm is rife in the workplace, certainly in particular sectors, and in some male dominated occupations. However, it is certainly not restricted to these environments, nor to men. 

What is your reaction to sarcasm? Do you find it funny, hurtful or irritating?

There are some gender differences in the use of sarcasm, in my experience, and so your response to this question may differ according to whether you are a man or woman.

There are some social class differences in the use of sarcasm too. In working class Britain, for instance, comedy is a vital part of communication in families and sarcasm may be used there as a way of producing laughter, and more so than in other situations.

How can one respond to it in a way that would reflect good levels of emotional intelligence?

Of utmost importance is the ability to be able to keep your cool so you don't get irritated, hurt or upset by sarcasm and can shrug it off.

This is an important emotional intelligence skill, and a factor in helping you become emotionally resilient. We have a quick quiz to help you find out how good you are keeping your cool at work.

Here are five key emotional intelligence skills you can apply to help you manage sarcasm so it washes over you like water off a duck's back.

This is the first article in a two-part series on emotionally intelligent ways to handle sarcasm. This one covers EQ skills, 1-5.

The second article covers "Keeping your cool with sarcasm EQ skills 6-10".

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EQ skills 1: Know what type of sarcasm it is

Having emotional knowledge is an important component of emotional intelligence, and so is knowledge of the different types of sarcasm.

Sarcasm can come in more than one form. The two main types, in my experience, are firstly the sarcastic comment that is meant to hurt or get at you; and secondly, the comment that is meant to be funny. However, sometimes the two can blend together.

Make sure you know the difference because your response to them may need to differ.

Sometimes when people don't separate out the two they take all sarcastic comments as attempts to hurt. This makes some sarcasm more painful and upsetting than it needs to be. Know the type.

EQ skills 2: Understand gender differences in sarcasm

The use of sarcasm by men and women may differ. Although talking of male and female communication differences means that I'm using stereotypes, sometimes these can be useful. However, I understand they will not apply to all men and women.

My observations of some Australian men is that sarcasm is used as a kind of jokey, blokesy, mateship bonding kind of communication. The better the sarcastic retort the more the laughter, and the more the men involved are likely to be getting on. (For those of you in Australia just watch Channel Nine's Footy Show for examples of this).

Australian women in contrast are less likely to use sarcasm but when they do they may be more likely to use it to put people down and mean it. Sarcasm from a woman is more likely to be perceived as bitching than mateship, but it depends how it is said, and whether it is funny or not.

If you're a woman make sure that you don't take a sarcastic comment from a man as a put-down when it was meant to be funny. The man might be trying to relate to you and may respect you - honestly!

The third emotional intelligence competency on the Genos emotional intelligence model is the ability to read the emotions of others. This is a vital skill to have for the successful management of sarcasm.

EQ skills 3: Fit the response to the context

There are many different ways to respond to sarcasm. I suggest you don't just develop one way to respond but many. Then you can choose the best response for the situation.

There is no one right way to communicate, just as there is no one tool a builder uses to build a home. They have many tools and a builder selects the best one for the job. And so it is with sarcasm, use your emotional intelligence skills to choose the best response to fit the circumstances.

For example, your response may differ according to the perceived intention of the sarcasm. 

EQ skills 4: Laugh

Some sarcastic comments, (especially those that are intended to be funny), can be hilarious. Some sarcasm is very quick-witted. Laugh rather than being hurt.

Laughter may defuse the situation and make the other person think you are a good sport and not "over sensitive". This can gain you great respect with those who like sarcasm.

You might find this distasteful or pathetic. Certainly sarcasm is not the greatest form of wit nor the most skilled form of communication and I'm not a fan of it. It is common, though, and just judging it as pathetic doesn't necessarily help you manage it.

Being able to get on with other people is important, and sometimes it means joining in with their type of humour, as long as it is acceptable in the workplace and not discriminatory or offensive.

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EQ skills 5: Give as good as you get

People who trade sarcasm as a form of humour, often seem to delight in a really smart-witted response back. They almost enjoy it as a type of sport.

In fact I've noticed, with the sarcastic people I know, that if I can come in with a brilliant sarcastic comment about what is happening before they do, they applaud loudly. Respect won again!

So sharpen your wit and out do them and you could find you have gained respect in the workplace. I know it sounds silly, but there it is. I know this from personal experience.

I used to resist responding to sarcasm but found with certain people that when I did not respond there was discomfort and awkward silences, and I was in danger of being judged as stand-offish, difficult or arrogant. When I finally gave in and learnt to out-wit them I gained a far better relationship and people relaxed with me. I coach many men, I need these skills.

Here is an example of what I mean.

A female diesel mechanic working in the mining sector told me that when she had attended the company medical examinations, she went back to the workshop. While she and the other men were all washing their hands for lunch one of the male workers asked her, in front of 10 blokes, if she'd had her testicles checked ...

She quickly retorted, "The Doctor said mine were the only ones he'd found so far!" It turns out he said nothing because everyone was laughing so loudly, and she gained the respect of all 10 blokes.

Is this a good use of emotional intelligence? I think so. Should he have said this? Probably not, but that is a whole new topic for discussion. However, he did and she had to respond in some way. She maintained good relationships. 

How high is your emotional intelligence & emotional resilience?

There is so much that you can do to develop your emotional resilience and the E.I. Institute has a number of options to help you:

Worried that you don't have enough emotional resilience and that you need to develop your emotional intelligence more? Our unique, practical, 5-star emotional intelligence coaching package is available for you and includes the opportunity to have your emotional intelligence assessed. Boost your resilience now. Find out more here.