Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Sarcasm: The New Generations' Weapon of Choice

Hanging out with 12 to 16-year olds for two weeks on two different church camps recently made me realize again how popular sarcasm is a method of communicating for that age group. One quip after another proved that honest open communication and even affection between teenagers is somewhat rare, happening in private, behind closed doors if at all. It seemed much easier for these kids to relate with other in exaggerated manners of speaking, self-deprecation and mutual teasing more than simply being honest and concerned for each other. Don’t get me wrong; these were great kids with good hearts. They’ve just learned that sarcasm is a “better” way for them to relate to one another. And sarcasm as the preferred way to speak is not limited only to teenagers. Generation X has long prized sarcasm as a valuable skill.

I remember in my single days (as of 08/06/06, I am officially no longer single, thank God) reading profiles on myspace.com or similar websites, and remarking how often people looked for others with a penchant for sarcasm. Not only that, but when Gen Xers described themselves, it was clear that they saw their sarcastic tendancies as one of their greatest gifts to offer others in a relationship. This question kept coming up in my mind: why would anyone value such an annoying characteristic in someone else? Didn’t we avoid such people in the past because it was hard to see them as trustworthy, or certainly as very straight shooters? Since when did sarcasm become such a worthwhile possession? It is true that good sarcasm at the right time and place can be wonderful wit. If used sparingly in familiar company, a lot of laughs can be derived from sarcasm.

But we’ve reached a time when sarcasm is not used sparingly, but persistently, and annoyingly. My theory is that sarcasm is en vogue because Generations X and Y have a hard time relating in mature ways with one others in their age range. (I’m not sure which I’m a part of; I think I barely made that troubled Gen X.) Even at a time when sex in some form or another is practiced by many middle school age and most high school age kids, sarcasm is popular not because it always brings people closer, but because it avoids the stages of discomfort that come in forming lasting bonds. Sarcasm by nature involves speech loaded with double meanings, which makes clear communication difficult. Because sarcasm usually involves words that should be easy enough to understand and a tone that contradicts the meaning of the words, sarcasm ultimately keeps others at bay, and leaves them wondering what you really meant. The Kids in the Hall skit (which I do find hilarious) explains it all.

But aren’t the pitfalls of this readily apparent? Isn’t it obvious that the great relationships (think marriages, best friends, etc.) are great because they involve clear communication, affection and mutual building up? Sarcasm is a weapon because it prevents all of these things from happening. Therefore, persistent sarcasm as a manner of speech will stunt the growth of teenagers, and it will make real intimacy between two people that much more difficult. I would go so far as to say that because this real intimacy has been lost, substitute intimacy in the way of sex has attempted (and failed) to fill the void. Is it any wonder that the generations that prize their sarcastic habits also seem to devalue sex and real affection?

Perhaps it has always been this way. Maybe teens have always related in such a way because it is safer. If you are on the offensive with sarcasm as your weapon, it is harder for others to hurt you. It just seems as though we prize a very strange thing when we tout the values of sarcasm. Sarcasm keeps others at a distance, leaves them wondering what you really meant and makes the truly worthwhile relationships that much more difficult to manage. I can only say that I will try to use sarcasm more sparingly, so I don’t end up like the Lonely Sarcastic Guy from The Kids in the Hall.

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