5 Important Reasons To Avoid Irony and Sarcasm

Morons should kill themselves.When you read that, what’s your reaction?

  • What do you think?

  • How do you feel?

  • What judgments do you make?

That first sentence was tweeted, as was this one:

Cyclist almost killed my dog this morning. He fell off and yelled at me. I hope he broke his f—ing arm.

But wait, there’s more.This tweet was in reference to an allegedly neglectful mother:

Tie her tubes. Now.

All three tweets were written by the same person.The First Amendment to the U.S Constitution provides for freedom of speech.


But what if this tweeter in question had been recently appointed as a member of the Human Rights commission of a small city?

(The Human Rights Commission is a body charged with advocating for and informing city residents of civil rights issues locally.)

This is a true story. (I couldn’t make this up.)

The media coverage on these tweets and the tweeter set off a local firestorm in my community. When first interviewed, the appointee/tweeter said that she didn’t see anything wrong. When asked about her online commentary, said she was being “facetious.” She said she was angry when she made the statements, and that she uses Twitter as a platform to vent.

(This, remember, is someone who is going to advocate for Human Rights.)

After a widespread public outcry, she voluntarily resigned her position.What can leaders learn from this situation?

Irony, sarcasm and venting has its place. But venting in a public forum (or on a public medium such as Twitter) has ripple effects. Especially for leaders, or people considering taking on leadership roles.

When you want to put yourself in a position to influence others, you have to recognize that everything you do or say (or tweet) has a consequence.

Sarcasm and irony are tools that, frankly, just don’t work well for leaders.Here are five important reasons leaders should avoid irony and sarcasm.

 1. Others don’t have context.

For irony and sarcasm to be fully understood, you have to have the appropriate frame of reference. The idea that “you’re just being facetious” may be clear in your mind, but no one else lives in your head but you. The situation is ripe for misunderstanding.

2. It’s indirect and sneaky. 

Invariably, irony and sarcasm gets its impact through sideways negative comments about someone else. Once you go sideways negative, you’re going to rub someone the wrong way. After all, if you’re sneaky enough to be negative about this person this time, who will you disparage next time?

3. It doesn’t work unless you have an extremely high level of safety.

I love sarcasm. But I save it for when I’m hanging out with my closest friends. We’re constantly coming up with clever ways to have fun at each other’s expense. But the reason it works is because we’re allgreat friends, have a high trust history, and feel extremely safe with each other.

We don’t need to banish sarcasm and irony from the planet. Sarcasm and irony works for comedians because everyone already knows they’re joking.(The same is true, for example, for the POTUS at the White House Correspondent’s dinner. Irony and sarcasm are expected.  However, you won’t hear a lot of sarcasm during the State of the Union address. It’s a different forum.)

4. You dis-empower your leadership authority.

Irony and sarcasm were first used by people not in positions of power. It was a way for the powerless to (on the surface) maintain the face of the recipient (“Oh, the new process is terrific, boss!” ) while actually attacking them. (Think Dilbert.)When you have the leadership role, you’re already in a position of power. When you try to wield the tools of irony and sarcasm, it’s just never a great fit. You end up weakening your influence.

5. You’re a role model.

At its core, the structure of sarcasm and irony is mean-spirited. Its power only comes from deprecating someone else. When you’re the leader, you’re under a microscope. Your example is your main form of influence. What example do you want to set?

This doesn’t mean that humor isn’t welcome in leadership. Humor is a fantastic tool for connection. However, if you’re going to make fun of someone with your humor, make sure it’s yourself. Here are two good reasons why:

  1. You’ll never be misunderstood and offend someone else.

  2. You’ll never run out of material.

What other reasons should leaders avoid irony and sarcasm? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below. 

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