Put-down humor is not funny

Jun 14 2010 by Peter Vajda Print This Article

Over the course of time, I've been involved in coaching numerous groups and teams, some of which had been intact for months, some for years. Their participants represented the usual spectrum of "types" you might find in any group, anywhere.

However, across all these teams, I was often been struck by one behavior that stood out above all others - namely the propensity for some members to consistently engage in making destructive, cutting, and sarcastic remarks to and about others in their group or on their team.

The comments I experienced were directed at folks' physical characteristics (e.g., hair, clothes), their perspectives or ideas, life choices (as trivial as their choices of restaurants, movies, sports teams and the like), their current performance, even where they had worked previously or attended school.

These were not simply run-of-the-mill light comments. There was an underlying edge of anger, resentment and destruction wrapped inside. They were hurtful, demeaning, sarcastic and verbally abusive.


  • Can you think of a time recently when you made a sarcastic or demeaning remark because you thought it would make you appear witty or smart?"
  • Can you remember being the recipient of another's sarcastic comment? How did that make you feel?
  • If you have a reputation for being witty because you are a master of sarcasm, how does that make you feel?
  • Would you ever ask the objects of your sarcasm how they feel? What does sarcasm get you, personally?
  • Do you think others really respect you, or just go along to get along, when they laugh at what you say?
  • Are you ever demeaning and sarcastic towards your partner or children? How do you think they like your behavior? Do you ever ask them?
  • Did you ever have to apologize for a cutting remark you made? What was that like for you?
  • Did you ever tell a colleague or friend to stop using you as a target for their destructive words?
  • Who would you be if sarcasm were not part of your personality? Would you lose some or much of your identity with that aspect of yourself?

On more than one occasion, I had to do a "double-take", and ask myself, "Did I really hear that?" "Did he really say that?" "Did she knowingly throw that zinger at her?"

What continually came to me was "Why?" "What is this all about?"

Everywhere in Western culture today, the biting, sarcastic, demeaning put-down has become an art form, ¨ TV, movies, talk radio, sports events, journals and magazines. It's part of the fabric of everyday conversation. And more and more folks seem to view such behavior as "business as usual", as no big deal.

In fact, when I asked some of these folks if they were aware of what they said, most responded, "No." or "So, what?" Like I had three heads or came from another planet. For many of these folks, their verbally-violent behavior is a true "blind spot."

So, let's return to the question, "Why?". In my experience in the realm of psychology and psychodynamics, we understand most folks engage in put-downs, sarcasm and barbs as a way to look sharp, smart, witty and cool. That's the upside for them. The downside is that the person for whom the comment is directed is often harmed, hurt, demeaned, or otherwise made the point of ridicule.

When I ask other group participants who are bystanders to this behavior why they often react with laughter, or "atta boy" comments, they generally say they don't know, they just do. "It was funny." Basically, a-knee-jerk reaction.

The truth is that many react this way, in the "go along to get along" fashion as they don't want to stand out as different, serious, "being soft," etc. They want and need to be "one of the gang," so speaking out, or pushing back against such comments and behavior will only serve to get them ostracized. So, they laugh or jump into the banter. (It's like a verbal gang rape.)

The deal is, this. No matter how sharp one is, how educated, how senior in the hierarchy one is, how wealthy one is, no one (read: no one) has the right to strive to look witty, sharp or cool at the expense of another human being, at the expense of being disrespectful to another human being.

And, for those who have a need to do so, the underlying question is, "Why?" What does it get you? Does it make any difference that you might be hurting someone else?

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About The Author

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.

Older Comments

Peter - Thank you for addressing this problem so directly. I, too, am appalled at how many people rely on 'put-down' humor as a way to (try to) be funny. In my opinion, such 'humor' is sophomoric and indicative of someone with low emotional intelligence.

Dan Bobinski