Science Says Sarcasm At Work Is a Useful Tool

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Sarcasm has its perks, and researchers are hoping businesses will consider encouraging the practice to promote creative thinking in the right circumstances.

Science Says Sarcasm At Work Is a Useful Tool

The word “sarcasm” comes from the Greek and Latin for “to tear flesh.”

With an origin like that, the benefits of using sarcasm to bring people together and foster creative thinking seem totally obvious, right?

Seriously, though, new research has affirmed these awesome uses of a sensibility you probably thought you needed put on the backburner at work, or in life, if you want people to actually like you.

To prove their theory that on-the-job sarcasm can indeed be useful, the researchers — Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School, Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School and Li Huang of the European business school INSEAD — randomly assigned participants to sarcastic, sincere or neutral exchanges in simulated conversation tasks. After this, those same men and women were then put to work on exercises that engaged creative-thinking skills.

Those who were on both the giving and receiving ends of sarcastic banter performed better on creativity tasks than those who engaged in sincere or neutral talk. Why? According Gino, both the expressers and recipients of sarcasm must dance around the contradiction, or the “psychological distance”between the literal and actual meanings of a sarcastic remark. This process “activates and is facilitated by abstraction,”which then enhances creative thinking.

You may have already guessed there’s at least some added brain power involved in the “mental gymnastics”of sarcasm — but there’s a lot we never knew, says Gino. “Most people, including us, probably weren’t clear on the direction of the causality,”she tells Yahoo Health, meaning a bump in creative thinking. “More importantly, most people probably didn’t realize that you could experience a creativity boost by attempting to decode sarcasm that you receive from someone else,” she says.

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This is the first time research has shown cognitive gains for the recipient, and it’s also the first study to show ways to minimize the odds of misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Because there may be an itty-bitty chance your words could land more on the mean/cutting side of the spectrum, as opposed to funny/ironic.

“Unlike sarcasm between parties who distrust each other, sarcasm between individuals who share a trusting relationship does not generate more contempt than sincerity,”Gino says, noting past research has suggested sarcasm is “detrimental to effective communication”because it may seem kind of contemptuous.

While there’s not an app for that, there is a fix: discernment. Be wise about when you wield your powerful words. For instance, maybe don’t use sarcasm with virtual strangers, or to welcome that new co-worker guy to your office.

So, what have we learned? Sarcasm has its perks, and researchers are hoping businesses will consider encouraging the practice to promote creative thinking in the right circumstances — because it isn’t necessarily going to brew hostility and tick off co-workers when used among generally friendly colleagues.

“This is consistent with some existing ethnographic research suggesting that sarcasm may enhance solidarity among close others and within work groups,”Gino explains.

See, sarcasm really does bring us together.

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