How Sarcasm is a Form of Verbal Aggression

· December 3, 2017

Some argue that sarcastic people are smarter, wittier, and good with words. However, this way of talking is sometimes laced with venom, concealed aggression, and a subtle, disconcerting contempt that can do a number on a person’s self-esteem. Some people would even go as far as to say that sarcasm is verbal aggression.

Sarcasm as a form of communication has many fans and followers. We see it on TV, characters showing off their exceptional minds with moments of inspired brilliance, and solving countless crimes and medical mysteries.

However, these characters are known for their scathing language, seasoned with contempt and dressed up in skilled sarcasm.

 “The tendency towards aggression is an innate part of man.”
-Sigmund Freud-

This kind of biting, satirical –but witty–  language is clearly detrimental to effective communication. Sometimes there is not only obvious disdain, but also often an inability to converse normally. They are incapable of a pleasant exchange of words without resorting to mocking and sarcasm to exert power.

There is another side to this that we shouldn’t ignore. Sarcasm is more common in relationships of trust, such as coworkers, relatives or even significant others. It’s a fact that further intensifies the wearing down effect of this way of communicating.

sarcasm at work

Intellectual “bullies” and their favorite weapon: sarcasm

There is a type of bullying that we often overlook. We are talking, of course, about sarcasm. This kind of attack is as common as it is condoned, and it really abounds in today’s world, both in the workplace and at home.

According to the 2010 study “Ranking of Bully Types“, intellectual bullies specialize in condescension. They are people who camouflage their insecurities with fancy words and arrogance. They enjoy making others feel inferior by trying to show how brilliant and talented they are.


 The worst part is that we often glorify this behavior or interpret it as a harmless joke.

At first, some people don’t see that the way they are being spoken to is in fact a form of intimidation. They end up smiling at the wit and subtle play on words, admiring such linguistic dexterity. However, when the bully keeps at it, it takes on a whole new meaning and can have serious consequences.

a woman with a wolf mask, symbolizing sarcasm

The first consequence is the violation of the rules of friendship. It is an attack on the person’s self-esteem. It is constant and ruthless bullying. The second aspect is that the sarcastic person is rarely aware he is treating others this way.

These people are often disguising an interpersonal insensitivity. They’re hiding an emotional numbness where they just want to demonstrate their intelligence, their flair for words and creativity. Because these are the only tools that sarcastic people have for building themselves up.

Sarcasm is verbal aggression: 3 ways to fight it

It is quite possible that you love the subtle verbal wit of characters like Sherlock Holmes. However, over and above a a wonderfully gifted brain, there must also be a loving, empathetic, and respectful person. Because wit means nothing if the message it conveys is harmful.

 “The important thing in communication is to listen to what is not said”
-Peter Drukcer-

This type of verbal aggression can be seen many times at the dinner table. It is very common for a person to make a sarcastic comment about their spouse in the conversation. While it may make everyone laugh, the spouse will be excluded.

In a way, the others are accomplices of that hidden aggression, of that camouflaged contempt. We need to be aware of it, and set limits. And, hopefully, put an end to it.

Here’s how…

a woman in the clouds

How to defend yourself from a sarcastic person

The first recommendation is basic: don’t have a passive attitude to sarcasm. Granted, we shouldn’t overreact and thereby cause unnecessary conflict. Generally speaking, we will be dealing with a person who is very skilled with words. But not nearly so with their emotions. And that is where we have the advantage.

  • The first thing we should do is to calmly say, “I didn’t appreciate that comment at all.”
  • Demand that they expand on their comments. A sarcastic person is a master in metaphors and speaking indirectly. Don’t accept it. Make them speak clearly. Because mature people convey courage and clarity in their words. But insecure people cover themselves up with word games.
  • Then explain to the “intellectual bully” what their sarcasm is doing. If it is our coworker or a friend, we must make it clear that it doesn’t make us feel good. Tell them that if they don’t speak more nicely, then you won’t stick around.

On the other hand, if the sarcastic person is our partner, we will need to talk about the pain they are causing us by their verbal aggression. Tell them that this constant attack on our self-esteem is not coherent with sincere, mature love.

 Demand respect, honesty, and affection, even in language.

Always remember that sarcasm and intellectual aggression do not deserve admiration. Instead, we should stop them in their tracks with the reality of the harm they’re doing.