“Lighten up.” “Dude, chill!” “Can’t you take a joke?” These are the sort of things we can hear when someone has used irony to hurt our feelings and then claimed they were “only joking”.
The jab could have actually seemed rather funny at first, and we might have even laughed. But just like when we’re physically injured and it takes a moment until we feel the pain, the same can occur when someone makes a clever but nasty comment at our expense. Because sarcasm is an underhanded form of communication, it takes us by surprise. It is, in fact, a surprise attack, and is never a joke. Sarcasm may employ irony but it is meant to wound or ridicule its target.
Sarcasm is considered cool, and reflects cultural influences on relationships.
A joke is meant to produce amusement, and jokes are playful and lighthearted. If they invoke laughter, it is not at someone else’s expense. Sarcasm is deceitful – it pretends to be what it’s not. Jokes are honest and transparent. Somewhere in the middle between sarcasm and joking is teasing. While teasing may be unwelcome, it is a candid attempt to provoke or annoy another. Unless directed at a child, teasing is therefore easier to resist and repel because it is out in the open.
Lastly, sarcasm is a first cousin to contempt. Contempt is found mostly in facial expressions and tone of voice, and is meant to convey disdain, scorn, and disgust. Contempt is meant to make the target feel worthless and ashamed, and is highly destructive to human relationships and to human connection.
So was it sarcasm? Contempt? Teasing? A joke? Who decides? In nearly all situations, the decision lies with the recipient. After a moment, if we’re not laughing, we can trust ourselves that this was no joke.