I was a sarky bugger at school. I was the smallest in my class at eleven, when I surprised everyone by passing my 11-plus and landing against all expectations at Grammar School. Bullying was almost institutionalised; in fact, the whole school was based along public school lines. Prefects paraded the playground, doling out punishment with scant regard to guilt. Caning was the preserve of the Headmaster, but ruler whacks and clips round the ear were acceptable, even recommended, means of controlling us pupils. It was expected of each year to bully the one beneath them – and, as a small kid I was bullied relentlessly. Too small to retaliate I learned to be cheeky, to be sarcastic, which I thought was clever at the time. It even endeared me to some of the Sixth form boys who treated me like a ‘fag’; I tagged along and ran errands and was occasionally accepted in the cigarette circle behind the bike sheds.
But this habit of cheeky and sarcastic comments continued when I started working. I really couldn’t help myself, my mouth opened and out popped a, sometimes really nasty but what I thought was funny, comment. Once, at a Heads of Department meeting the Managing Director was really quite angry and said “I don’t want any of you taking me for a C…” I immediately said, “But Paul, it’s such an easy mistake to make.” I was nearly sacked for that one. And with e-mails, there was no stopping me. Answering e-mails with no time to think, to consider if it was wise, just get the quick and witty remark out there as fast as possible. And no chance of retraction either. E-mails are forever. It took me a long time to realise that sarcasm is really the poor relation of wit, and far removed from wisdom. And worse of all it is designed to hurt. My mother instilled in me “Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Well, I am sure I hurt quite a few people with my barbed comments.
Have I learnt my lesson? A bit, but old habits die hard. I try nowadays to just think for a second or two before coming out with a witticism – and if it is genuinely funny or maybe contains a touch of wisdom I continue, but if it is simply spiteful I bite my tongue. Or try to anyway.
But sarcasm is also sometimes the only weapon we have against the powerful; politicians are immune to most criticism but sometimes sarcasm can say far more than simple criticism. The wisdom comes in deciding when to use it.