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Negotiators Need to Avoid Unhelpful Sarcasm

Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. Yet it remains the funniest.

- Fred Allen


In an Ask Reddit questionnaire on the use of sarcasm,

- 41% say they use it very frequently

- 34% occasionally

- 12% rarely

- 13% never

Sarcasm is replete in the law enforcement and legal system. It exudes power and superiority.

Example: Judge is on the bench and says to the parties, "I don’t have all day. Get on with it. I need to get home to watch the movie Barbie for which my husband just paid the streaming charges of $24."

Sarcasm is amusing to some: often the one using the sarcasm, but not the receivers. It is especially not helpful, and is even diverting, in the problem solving process.

Example: Residents of the District of Columbia were frightened by the exploding rise of violent crime. Mayor Muriel Bowser in July, 2023, tried to comfort the city. She spoiled her message of assurance by adding sarcasm. Washington Post Writer Colbert King responded in this way:

This is not Mayberry,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said about accounts of thieves running up to valet stands at two downtown restaurants and stealing car fobs and keys.

Indeed, D.C. is not Mayberry. We are not now, nor have we ever been, a town of simple and genteel folk blessed with excellent schools and a minuscule crime rate. But set aside Bowser’s sarcastic reference to the mythical Mayberry and ask: Is today’s D.C. a safe place to live?

Example: The Sluggers Come Home, Baseball Negotiation, Stanford University.

This video and case is used in many law schools throughout the world. It is a negotiation between potential buyer Barbara Myers and two brothers who own the baseball field (Orange County, California). At one point during the negotiation, Myers comment, "I am not running a charity for the Curry Brothers." At another point, she declares, "We are not talking about the New York Yankees. Neither comment was helpful in progressing the negotiation."

Judges and Detectives Often Use Sarcasm

Lincoln Lawyer Series Example: A lawyer apologizes to the judge for wasting the court’s time. Judge responds, "I will convey this to my bowling team." Later, another lawyer requests a short recess. Judge responds, "As long as you are not taking time to study the Forensics Manual."

So, why do detectives and judges so often use sarcasm? Power.

Sarcasm is likewise highly dangerous. It has its place, but in limited doses and (again) only when you are absolutely certain that it’s going to work. Sarcasm is easily misunderstood and can grate on the nerves of the jury and judge if it isn’t used effectively.

What is Sarcasm per OpenchatAI?

Sarcasm is a form of verbal or written communication in which a person says or writes something, but the intended meaning is the opposite of the literal words used. It's often characterized by a tone of irony, mockery, or contempt. Sarcasm is typically used to convey humor, criticism, or to emphasize a point in a subtle or indirect way.

For example, if someone says, "Oh, great, another Monday," with a sarcastic tone, they might actually mean that they're not excited about the start of the workweek, even though they're using the word "great" sarcastically. Sarcasm often relies on the context of the conversation, the speaker's tone of voice, and the relationship between the people involved to be properly understood.

It's important to note that sarcasm can sometimes be difficult to interpret, and its meaning may be misinterpreted if the cues aren't clear. Additionally, sarcasm is culturally dependent, and what is considered sarcastic in one culture might not be perceived the same way in another.

What are the reasons people use sarcasm?

According to the Science of People:

Insecurity: The speaker may want to avoid confrontation.

Social Awkwardness: This could be a way of expressing dissatisfaction.

To show superiority: Maybe the person is anxious or can’t read others.

To minimize vulnerability: This could be a coping mechanism.

Are there some benefits of sarcasm to problem solving?

According to Richard Chin in Smithsonian Magazine:

Sarcasm seems to exercise the brain more than sincere statements do. Scientists who have monitored the electrical activity of the brains of test subjects exposed to sarcastic statements have found that brains have to work harder to understand sarcasm.

That extra work may make our brains sharper, according to another study. College students in Israel listened to complaints to a cellphone company’s customer service line. The students were better able to solve problems creatively when the complaints were sarcastic as opposed to just plain angry. Sarcasm “appears to stimulate complex thinking and to attenuate the otherwise negative effects of anger,” according to the study authors.

The mental gymnastics needed to perceive sarcasm includes developing a “theory of mind” to see beyond the literal meaning of the words and understand that the speaker may be thinking of something entirely different...

Sarcastic statements are sort of a true lie. You’re saying something you don’t literally mean, and the communication works as intended only if your listener gets that you’re insincere. Sarcasm has a two-faced quality: it’s both funny and mean. This dual nature has led to contradictory theories on why we use it.

But others researchers have found that the mocking, smug, superior nature of sarcasm is perceived as more hurtful than a plain-spoken criticism. The Greek root for sarcasm, sarkazein, means to tear flesh like dogs.

According to Haiman, dog-eat-dog sarcastic commentary is just part of our quest to be cool. “You’re distancing yourself, you’re making yourself superior,” Haiman says. “If you’re sincere all the time, you seem naive.”

Sarcasm is also a handy tool. Most of us go through life expecting things to turn out well, says Penny Pexman, a University of Calgary psychologist who has been studying sarcasm for more than 20 years. Otherwise, no one would plan an outdoor wedding. When things go sour, Pexman says, a sarcastic comment is a way to simultaneously express our expectation as well as our disappointment.

How does one stop sarcasm?

According to the Science of People:

Take the genuine approach. This approach takes everything the speaker says as genuine or what they really mean.

Mirror: Another way is to reflect in a playful way.

Become a translator: Discern what the speaker really means that is being hidden behind the sarcasm.


Sarcasm is the lowest form of humor. Sarcasm is ubiquitous in the law enforcement and legal communities and professionals. It is rarely helpful in the problem solving process. Many use sarcasm to impose superiority. Sarcasm often amuses the speaker and irritates the receiver.

To be an effective negotiator, most of the time, avoid sarcasm.


Maximum Influence, The 12 Universal Laws of Power Persuasion, Kurt W. Mortensen.

Say What You Mean. Get What You Want, A Businessperson’s Guide to Direct Communication, Judith C. Tingley, Ph.D.

How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie. “The first-and still the best book of its kind-to lead you to success.”

How to Negotiate Like a Child-Unleash the Little Monster Within to Get Everything You Want, Bill Adler, Jr., ISBN 0-8144-7294-X

Making Your Case-The Art of Persuading Judges, Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner,, ISBN 978-0-314-18471-9


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