Brutal Sarcasm

EditHint: some of these comments should be moved to GentleSarcasm, ZenSlap, or other more appropriate AttitudeAdjustmentTool pages, because the motley assortment here absolutely do not all equal "BrutalSarcasm" by any stretch of the imagination.


The original ExtremeProgrammingMaster has some specialized forms:

  1. You tell him how you're going to do something. He says, "You're much smarter than I am, you can probably make that work ..."

  2. He asks you why you're putting in some complex feature. You explain it's because if you don't, X will happen. He says, in a leading but unbelieving tone, "... and that would be bad because ...". You answer. He continues, "... and that would be bad because ..." until you finally get that you're on the wrong track.

  3. You offer your idea. He says, "That's one way ..."

He manages to do it while exuding respect for you by including the seeds of your redemption in the sarcasm itself. You start writing the second test before getting the first to work and he whacks you. All you have to do is delete the second test, get the first working, and notice how much better you feel. You forget the sarcasm but remember the lesson. Too often brutal sarcasm is just a way for the perp to dump negative emotion.

I've been observing some less skillful uses of brutal sarcasm lately. Invariably the recipient starts to get the scared animal look. His eyes roll, he's looking for some way to escape. He is no longer capable of thinking clearly. The brutal sarcasm provider has lost all opportunity to help, in the rush of adrenaline he has caused. It's not a team-building technique. -- RonJeffries

BrutalSarcasm is antithetical to team building and joyful creation. Those who like to employ it are too full of themselves to constructively aid others. Frequent, malicious practitioners of brutal sarcasm are ripe for ParkingLotTherapy. -- DonOlson
Most common use in programming "It's a feature."

This must be delivered with a totally StraightFace?.
Just a doggone minute here. I'm all for group-huggy, hot-tubby, new-age management, BUT- sometimes the problem is that the person who you, in your responsibility to the team as coach, see is causing a problem cannot listen. It's not that they don't understand what you are saying. They are not, for whatever reason, capable of listening. You can 1) wait for the problem to go away, 2) beat your head continuing to try to explain at the same level, or 3) take the discussion to the next level.

Screwing up other people's work is also antithetical to creative and joyful creation. NaturalConsequences is my first choice. brutal sarcasm I save for the thick of skull. But it definitely can be overdone. -- KentBeck


It's worth noting that what one culture regards as brutal sarcasm may come across as jocular pleasantry or interrogative jibe in another. And vice versa.

Speaking as an expat, this kind of miscommunication is particularly common between Australians and Americans. Part of this is because Australians can convey irony tonally, where monotone Americans are forced to use dramatic devices. Kent's careful word play, for example, would be replaced in Australian business parlance by an equally carefully toned "Bullshit," or perhaps a gentle "Don't come the raw prawn with me, sunshine." The irony, and etiquette, is in modulating the tone of delivery.

When speakers from these two cultures get together, unaware of the different usage, confusion results. Yanks feel unjustly slighted. Aussies have no idea what they said to offend. Straightening out such tangles can take much effort. Nor is this kind of IronyGulf uncommon with other cultures; wars have been fought over it. Usually with the French. -- PeterMerel

[The French have no sense of irony. Look at Napoleon!]

People invite me to meetings that they know will frustrate me so they can see my brutal sarcasm at work. Only in Australia would that happen. -- JohnFarrell

I'm just sittin' here thinkin' monotone thoughts about how in the devil I became Australian without my knowing it! -- WaldenMathews


Good-natured jibing and kidding and pulling one another's chain is all good fun. There is nothing so fine as being able to laugh at oneself, and share it with others. The sort of behavior that I find unacceptable is that which comes out of pure meanness and/or arrogance. Jerks who, strictly for their own show of superiority, engage in brutal sarcasm as pure putdown, without a hint of irony or humor, are not helping anyone. Being able to poke fun and get poked in return is very healthy. Being a prick is not. As for those with skulls too thick to penetrate in normal discourse, I doubt that brutal sarcasm does the trick either, though it might relieve the frustration of dealing with them. -- DonOlson
BruceAnderson helped me with this issue. Correction can come from my accurate observation and assessment of someone's behavior, or it can be generated by my own fears and insecurities. The former is okay. The latter is not. Some people conclude from this that no correction is worth the risk. However, correction is essential to progress. Some people conclude that all correction is worth the risk. They devolve to chair-throwing assholes and screw up their teams.

How to navigate between these two? Here is an answer I can live with. I resolve to reflect on the corrections I give, as I am doing them and afterwards, and to reduce the incidence of the evil ones. In this context, I give myself permission to ask my team's permission to provide correction. I make it clear what I am doing and under what process, and ask them to challenge me whenever they think I have strayed. If I find that my incidence of internally generated correction is rising, I will swear off until I think I can be doing better.

-- KentBeck
It seems to me that subtlety can be overdone. Sometimes you have to say things rather directly, like -- "We are not going to do it that way!" It is important to give a reason perhaps, but someone has to be in charge finally where the rubber meets the road. Playing head games with people finally engenders resentment and alienation. My general rule is to try to give everyone as much freedom as possible consistent with getting the goals of the project achieved. Sooner or later though, especially if you have folks that are causing difficulties, the "boss" has to step in and say "Enough!" That needs to be simple and direct and understood by all. -- RaySchneider

I concur with the point above. As a project manager, one has different amounts of leeway at different times in a project. There will be times when the project manager will disagree with an approach proposed by one of the developers, and there is a limit to what people will accept based on discussion. In these cases, when time permits, I give the developer a fair amount of time to accomplish the task his way. If he succeeds, then I may learn something. If he fails, then he may learn something. There are times, though, when I need to lay down the law. If there is not sufficient time to try twice, then I will direct the developer to do the task in a specific way. In this case, however, it is unlikely either of us will learn anything, but at least I will keep the overall project on track. The latter approach is usually frustrating to both sides, but it is an approach that the project manager will need to use on occasion. -- WayneMack

Glad we're not calling it ExtremeSarcasm :-) -- AlanFrancis

Whooee! BrutalProgramming is born. :-0 -- WaldenMathews
What if you employ brutal sarcasm but can't help yourself? I find this happening a lot. I'm thinking, "I really shouldn't be so harsh on this guy's code," but I can't seem to stop myself. -- BrianRobinson

I am about the most brutally sarcastic person I know, except for my sister. If you are reading someone's code, DO point out what is wrong with it. DON'T be mean just for the heck of it. After all, that guy probably thought it was pretty good when he wrote it. I think using sarcasm in place of education is destructive. -- JohnFarrell
The amount of sarcasm which is considered brutal definitely varies from culture to culture. A native Yorkshireman (remember the YorkshiremanSketch?) who migrated to the USA, I was told after six months to moderate my aggression. I was puzzled by this, not being a naturally aggressive person. It took me a few days to realize that my sarcasm, meant humorously, was being interpreted as aggression. I concluded, of course, that f***ing Americans all have thin skins. ''(Lest I be subjected to ParkingLotTherapy, let me point out that this last is a joke - now perhaps you can see why my sense of humor is sometimes considered inappropriate)''. -- SteveHolden


This page confuses me; here's my attempt to make sense of it:

First off, there's a difference between sarcasm and irony. The etymology of sarcasm is helpful in distinguishing between them:
from sarkazein to tear flesh, bite the lips in rage, sneer
Now, sarcasm usually employs irony -- but you can have irony without having (bitter, nasty, flesh-rending) sarcasm.

I'd say the positive examples at the top of this page are examples of irony (e.g. "You're much smarter than I am" is used to mean its literal opposite: "Jeez, that's too complicated for me -- and therefore probably too complicated for you, since you're no smarter than I am"). I do not think they're examples of sarcasm -- there's no bitterness or nastiness there.

"You're much smarter than I am" seems like a strong example of sarcasm to me. It's basically telling someone that you think they're stupid. Most people I know (in Oregon) would interpret that as confrontational and rude.

Do people call it brutal sarcasm ironically? That is, "We know it's not brutal, and not really sarcasm, but we call it that for kicks."??

That would be an interesting example of meta-irony, and you guys are much smarter than me, so you could probably call it brutal sarcasm without getting confused.... --GeorgePaci

Brutal Sarcasm is an art, not a science; the would be practitioner must have a fine sense of people and the project, as well as the discipline the project exists within, before attempting it. Fumbling the ball will result in BAD KARMA, reduced morale, alienation, team disruption, and assorted interesting (if not pleasant) career events. One therefore does well to move into practicing it CAUTIOUSLY and with RESPECT for the recipient which borders on LOVE and in SMALL DOSES while one get's the hang of it- otherwise, the inept practitioner may well become a candidate for DeFenestration or some other career changing art form. I have seen perported leaders attempt such methods. Note the word ATTEMPT was used. --KirkBailey
Also see: AttitudeAdjustmentTool, SarcasticGuy
CategoryJoke

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