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5 Rules of Using Sarcasm in Business Meetings

Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - 12:15
Sarcasm in Business Meetings

Ever start a meeting by saying something like: “Well, I’m sure we’ll have no trouble covering these 25 agenda items in the next 20 minutes, so let’s get started!”

Did your wisecrack inspire chuckles? Or scowls? The likely answer is both.

What is Sarcasm?

Sarcasm, defined in simple terms as disguising negative commentary with a positive tone, is one of the most common forms of humor in conversation. And like applying other forms of humor to business settings, practicing sarcasm in meetings – in person, by phone, online or some combination of all three – can be like walking a tight rope.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal calls sarcasm a “dangerous game.” The first clue to the reasons why comes from the very roots of the word itself. Sarcasm comes from Greek and Latin verbs that mean “to tear flesh.” And even now, these negative overtones cast a shadow over the word’s meaning, as a quick visit to an online dictionary will attest. Sarcasm today is defined as “harsh or bitter derision or irony.” Search for some synonyms for sarcasm and discover “contempt,” “mockery” and “scorn” are among the most common.

What Kind of People Use Sarcasm?

If sarcastic quips are so fraught with the risk of offense, why would we be tempted to utter them in the company of colleagues? The answer comes from acerbic author and playwright Oscar Wilde, who said:

"Sarcasm is the lowest form of humor but the highest form of intelligence.”

Modern studies support Wilde’s observation. “Researchers don’t know if sarcastic people are smarter,” columnist Elizabeth Bernstein wrote in her WSJ piece. “But they do know that sarcasm requires abstract thinking—discerning meaning beneath the surface—which is known to be a hallmark of intelligence.”

In her column, Bernstein cites a series of studies by researchers at Columbia Business School, Harvard Business School and Insead, a European business school, which declares:

"People who are able to understand sarcasm are more creative and better able to solve problems.”

As creativity and problem-solving are building blocks of productivity, occasional sarcastic banter in business meetings seems understandable. Still, caution is advised for anyone taking up the technique.

“Laying down a good one-liner feels good, which makes sarcasm tempting in any social situation, including business meetings,” says R.C. Dirkes, a consultant who coaches executives on methods of persuasion. “But like any art form, the key to successful sarcasm is not how your comments make you feel, but what feelings your words provoke in others.”

Unlike other business communications, such as an “elevator pitch,” Dirkes says effective sarcasm can’t be boiled down to a template or formula. Like humor in general, he explains, sarcasm hinges on a sense of timing and a feel for the audience.


So, based on Bernstein’s article and Dirkes’ counsel, here are five guidelines to help develop a knack for productive sarcasm:

1. Meeting Leaders Should Avoid Sarcasm

One critical aspect of leading a successful meeting is demonstrating respect for each attendee’s commitment to the business at hand. A sarcastic jest easily could send the opposite message to someone feeling stressed by work or pressed for time.

2. Avoid Sarcasm When Invited to Speak by a Leader

Just as respect for any given participant’s time is important for meeting organizers, for best results attendees should show deference to session leaders. Instead of generating a few laughs, sarcastic repartee could be interpreted as not taking a meeting’s subject matter – or its organizer -- seriously.

3. It's Okay to Use Sarcasm with Internal Teams

Colleagues who have collaborated for some time on a project often develop a comfortable rapport. In this context, sharing sarcastic wit can be a sign of a trusting relationship, and, in turn, contribute to a productive environment.

4. Virtual Meetings Don't Translate Sarcasm Well

One key to conveying trust and confidence is eye contact. And while audio and video conferences provide significant support for this mission, when participating in a meeting through virtual channels wariness should be the rule.

5. Avoid Sacrastic Remarks in Mixed Company

No matter the dimensions of diversity in a group – age, gender, region, ethnicity, etc. – the likelihood that everyone around the table laughs at the same jokes is low. In business, diversity demands discretion not only in meetings but in all forms of communication.

Dirkes believes sarcastic wordplay in business can play a “powerful role” in building teams and fostering collaboration across conference tables and around the world. “The benefits can be worth a little risk,” he says. “If you practice a touch of restraint, I’m sure your wry witticisms will hit the mark with every colleague every time. And you’ll never have to apologize to anyone.”

Have you ever experienced a sarcastic mistake– where someone’s comment deflated a meeting or sabotaged a group project as a result?  Is sarcasm worth the price of the feel-good moment?

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