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I Am Being Sarcastic. Can’t You Tell?

Oh, hi there. I can’t tell you how pleased I am that you’ve taken a moment to stop by and read this column. Particularly considering the vast assortment of far more interesting things you could be doing with your valuable time. Like tweeting or texting or playing Words with Friends…

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Sarcastic? Yeah, OK, a little. It’s not one of my better qualities and there have been times when I’d get off a good one and wound up paying a price — though sometimes it was worth it, even if it came with an installment plan.

An article in Entrepreneur titled “11 Bad Personality Traits Costing You Business” discussed the “toxic personalities that repel even your most loyal customers and most diligent employees.” These traits include low emotional IQ, inflexibility, impatience and chronic sarcasm. My version of sarcasm usually takes the form of an uncrackable deadpan. I’ll start with a vaguely plausible story, taking the listener further and further out on the plank, then at precisely the right moment, I’ll yank it back in to reveal that everything you’ve just heard — the gunshots, the girl, the slow-motion chase — it’s all made up… You’ve been had. I look at it as “weaponizing” a deadpan, which has a similar wise-guy attitude, but it packs more wallop.

Years ago, I was part of a three-person creative team that created a pilot for a TV show. We were on the phone with a producer whose agent mentioned his interest in possibly producing it. The guy immediately showers us with words of praise, which escalates with shocking speed into expressions of profound love — a classic Hollywood type. Ridiculous. I’m slowly sinking in a vat of torpor-inducing goo, when he suddenly asks “So, who wrote this?” My first instinct is to respond with a sarcastic “who do you think?” — but I restrain myself. Instead, I tell him we found a couple of Indian guys, Dev and Ravi Patel, the Coen Brothers of Bangalore. “Amazing! How did you find them?” he asked, taking the bait. “A friend of a friend. They were great, very funny guys, and what’s more, we got them for pennies on the rupee.” I waited for this to fully register, then exploded, “Who do you think wrote it? Did you even get to the end where our names are listed under ‘writers’?”

As corrosive as chronic sarcasm can be, there’s something I’d argue that’s worse: chronic agreeableness. These are the people who are in all the team pictures, they go to all the birthday parties and participate in the sack race at the company picnic. They are liked, ride the consensus in every meeting and manage to coast on their well-cloaked marginal usefulness, having drifted into a Zen-state of suspended ambiguousness: there but not there, central but peripheral, constant but disposable. If I’m a manager, I want to be on the lookout for these insidiously agreeable people, particularly since they make innately sarcastic people like me look bad: You never see the gaping void behind the agreeableness until it’s too late — which is what makes it so insidious.

The next time someone sneers at your tie, your shoes, your slovenly ways or your “priorities” (again, thank you so much for reading this to the end), instead of getting pissed off, appreciate the transparency. If I’m making fun of your priorities, I may not mean it… Or maybe I do. You may find it hilariously funny or deeply offensive. But at least I’m not anything like those agreeable bastards who will tell you only what you want to hear! Unless of course you’d rather I lie to you, which I’m happy to do. Just say the word.

Charles Epstein Bio Image

Charles Epstein is president and founder of BackBone Inc. Follow him on Twitter. 


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