Better tell your boss: It’s okay to be sarcastic in the office. Really.

In fact, people who use and understand sarcasm are likely to be both more intelligent and more creative than people who can’t, according to a recent Harvard Business School study, writes Elizabeth Bernstein in the Wall Street Journal. “Researchers don’t know if sarcastic people are smarter, but they do know that sarcasm requires abstract thinking—discerning meaning beneath the surface—which is known to be a hallmark of intelligence,” she writes. “People who are able to understand sarcasm are more creative and better able to solve problems.”

“To express and understand sarcasm, you have to recognize that there is a distinction between the surface level meaning and what the intended meaning is,” Adam Galinsky, a professor of business at Columbia Business School, told Bernstein. “And this level of abstraction is one of the foundations of creativity.”

Or, to be more technical, “Communicating sarcasm and understanding it requires a complex neural network,” report Ryan and Katherine Biek. “Parts of the left side of the brain pick up the literal meaning, connections in the frontal lobe and right hemisphere gauge implied meanings, and the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex bridges the two, judging which meaning the speaker truly intended.” Even the person on the receiving end of the sarcasm can benefit.

Other than picking out the smart alecks in the room, what is the value of sarcasm? Bernstein explains:

  • It lets someone show a negative emotion while softening the blow with humor.
  • It increases intimacy. “You only say the opposite of what you really mean if you know the person is going to understand you,” says Dr. Roger Kreuz,a professor of psychology at the University of Memphis, told Bernstein. By using sarcasm, you are saying, “I trust you. I am bringing you into the club,” he says.
  • It increases creativity. “A joint studyfrom Harvard, Yale and the European business school INSEAD found both expressing and receiving sarcasm relates to creativity boosts through abstract thinking,” the Bieks write. Similarly, a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found participants who listened to angry customers did well on analytical tasks but struggled with creative ones. “But when participants listened to customers who channeled frustration through sarcasm, it aided creative problem solving,” they add.

The problem comes when people don’t understand that you’re being sarcastic.

“To avoid conflict, sarcasm is best used between people who trust each other,” Bernstein writes. The study found that when sarcasm was used between people who didn’t trust each other, it produced conflict, she explains. But when people trusted or knew the person with whom they engaged in sarcasm, there was no conflict. Sarcasm can also be an issue between different cultures or genders, researchers warn.

As anyone who’s been on the Internet for more than thirty seconds knows, sarcasm can also be difficult to detect online, which is why people use smile faces and emoticons, Some have even gone so far as suggesting “sarcasm” fonts or symbols in their text. The Internet, after all, is the home of Poe’s Law, which suggests it’s impossible to come up with a parody that someone won’t take seriously.

“Most of the cues that people have developed to signal sarcasm—a louder volume, a slower tempo, a suspicious lack of eye contact—don’t translate well to written text (… a fact that any frequent sender of sarcastic e-mails can probably confirm with some embarrassment),” writes Caitlin Dewey in the Washington Post. “In one 2006 study, readers correctly identified sarcastic e-mails less than 60 percent of the time. In another, three adults were asked to judge whether a set of 270 tweets was sarcastic — and they disagreed on roughly half of them.”

And with that, people are a lot better at detecting sarcasm than computers are, Dewey writes, noting that a recent project to help determine sarcasm in Tweets is right only about 85 percent of the time. There’s even an Internet Sarcasm Detector, intended to help determine whether a Tweet is sarcastic—something that comes in handy with social media sentiment analysis, she writes.

“Because sarcasm is so devilishly ambiguous, there’s a surprising degree of demand for an automated tool or an algorithm that could reliably detect it,” Dewey writes. “Not necessarily to save you the trauma of missing a joke, mind you, but to more accurately measure public opinion in its many, exhausting Internet iterations.” Similar, law enforcement organizations are interested in detecting whether someone Tweeting what sounds like a threat is being serious or sarcastic, she adds.

So there you go. To create a more intimate workspace and make your coworkers more creative, use sarcasm with them.

Maybe make sure your boss is on board with this plan before you implement it. You think?


Simplicity 2.0 is where we examine the intricate and transitory world of technology—through a Laserfiche lens. By keeping an eye on larger trends, we aim to make software that’s relevant to modern day workers, rather than build technology for technology’s sake.

Subscribe to Simplicity 2.0 and follow us on Twitter. If what we’re saying piques your interest, head over to Laserfiche.com where you’ll see how we apply the lessons learned on Simplicity 2.0 to our own processes, products and industry.

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