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Ben Nadel at CFUNITED 2009 (Lansdowne, VA) with: Steve Bryant
Ben Nadel at CFUNITED 2009 (Lansdowne, VA) with: Steve Bryant

Way Of The Warrior: The Poison Of Sarcasm

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User-interface design is not easy. It is, perhaps, the single most important part of what I do every day; but, it is not easy. Each new interface offers its own challenges and its own unique opportunities for innovation. When Clark Valberg and I are working on a user interface together, sometimes things get heated. While we are typically on the same page as to what will work and what won't, occassionally, we both feel very strongly about an opposing point of view.

Early on in our business, when we would get into these situations, both of us would drop down into a conversational style that went early with the sarcasm. We might say things like:

"Yeah, I think that's a really good idea. I mean, I personally like 'usable' interfaces; but, I think we should definitely try your idea."

... or:

"I don't mean to push back - I just thought you were fan of intuitive design; but hey, maybe the user doesn't really need to be able to use this."

After something of this nature was said, we would both have a good laugh and move on with the design. Because sarcastic comments can be funny, it is sometimes hard to remember that they are poisonous. Sarcasm is the taking of something that is negative and dismissive and rolling it up into something that is "witty" and humorous. While it may not be immediately apparent, sarcasm can leave a residue of resentment; we might initially hear the humor of it, but what we feel later is the negativity.

As a warrior, I want to be impeccable with my word. I want to take all of the love that I have inside me and share it with everyone and every thing around me. I cannot do this if I continue to use sarcasm to express myself. When I use sarcasm, I use the power of the word against myself by using it against others. This is not a long-term strategy for success.

Luckily, both Clark and I feel the same way. We hold weekly meetings to evaluate our ongoing work environment. In one of those meetings, a long time ago, we evaluated the way in which we conducted ourselves during the design process. We both agreed that the use of sarcasm can only lead us away from our goals; not only does it [sarcasm] add nothing to the current conversation, it makes both of us less likely to present new and innovative ideas in the future for fear of their sarcastic dismissal. Be removing sarcasm from our conversations, it has removed friction and increased the effectiveness of our design process.

While not all forms of sarcasm are necessarily intended to be harmful, I believe that as a warrior, there are far more effective ways for me to express myself.

Reader Comments


Don't give up of sarcasm. It's an excellent tool in "desperate" situations. When nothing else left to be done, when you meet dead end, when optimism is close to zero, sarcasm is great way to kick your spirit up. Because it can be so useful, people easily become addicted to it and start exaggerating. At that point, it become contra-productive - insulting.


These are excellent posts, Ben. I hope you keep doing them in the future.

As a parallel to your idea of removing sarcasm from your daily interaction, I was wondering if you've ever read the classic "How to Win Friends and Influence People"? I just recently started this one and got most of the way through it. Putting its lessons into practice in my daily life have led to remarkable success already. Although the title can easily be taken in a negative (manipulative) context, reading it will give you a different perspective about it.

The post about sarcasm is very much like chapter one in the above-mentioned book: Don't Criticize. As for me, this chapter changed my outlook on life immediately. The lesson is really about how criticism only serves to satisfy the ego of the criticizer, and otherwise does no good at all. If fact, it really ends up creating a net negative effect on any situation. Quite mind-blowing when we take the advice of a book about personal relations first published in the 30's... and it produces results!

You seem to be interested in understanding the world around you as well as yourself. I applaud this effort and wish you good luck.



I think there is a time and place for sarcasm. For example, if I was standing in a long line that wasn't moving, I might say something like, "I really like that this line isn't moving. This is just really fun." I think the brand of sarcasm that is dangerous is the sarcasm in which a *person* is on the receiving end.


Glad you're liking these posts :) I have read that book. It is really good. Another great book along those lines is "The Magic of Thinking Big" by Dr. David Schwartz. Both books are very much in the same vein and both seem like they were published a long time ago; and yet, both are amazingly insightful and hugely relevant today.

I'll have to give both of them another look. Like a "mantra", I think it's important to revisit positive influences time and time again as it takes a long time to fully integrate into your person.


Nice Series Ben. Keep it up! I have read both MOTB and Dale Carnegie. Highly recommended for everyone. You may also like Napoleon Hill books and "Secret" by Rhonda Byrne.


Leaving CFBuilder out of Adobe Creative Suite 5 was a truly brilliant and highly productive move that is sure to advance the future of ColdFusion as a platform for years to come. Even better to make CFBuilder expensive and include a bonus Flash Builder license that increases the price by almost as much as Flash Builder costs, what a great bonus!! But even smarter is not including CFBuilder as a bonus for Flash Builder users! That's super-smart, don't want to spread a product to users who may not have heard of or used it before, that would be like free marketing, but hey users hate free stuff so makes sense to leave it out. That's almost as smart as if they made CF server support full server-side ActionScript.

I'm having a bad day after reading about CS5 Ben. Forgive me.


This blog needs a "Like" function ... so I can push the button on this post. :)

Well written and great point of view. I've been on the receiving end of this kind of sarcasm a LOT in the last decade and it is very harmful to the soul.

I've weeded out quite a bit, but I still get it every now and then.


The bite marks of sarcasm linger for longer if the target of that sarcasm has any faith in the old adage that humor quite often "contains an element of truth". Even if it's not the truth you were hoping to convey in any way whatsoever.

I'll openly admit I'm too sarcastic at times, and in more "stuffy" social settings I remind myself to be less so. Unless we're close to the target and they understand us REALLY well, it can really cause some harm down the line.

Heck, nobody knows me better than my own wife, and I still have to be careful... it's just a relatively dark conversational tool. Catch me in the wrong mood, and someone complaining about a long line, even if using relatively funny sarcasm, can really impact my frame of mind. And not the way you'd think: Sometimes, I'm actually in a really good mood and grateful for a long line to "slow my life down for a minute", when some schmuck starts a complaint-fest with the other line-waiters... plus the discomfort I feel if the workers I'm in line to see overhear the complaint!

Your post made me (re)think this, and I'm grateful for it... it reminds me that I need to keep it in check! Thanks.


So what you are saying is that you and Clark have "feelings" (air quotes) and that sarcasm hurts your tender parts (euphemism for vagina) so you need to be nice to each other all the time?

Wow, I always thought you were over the top nice, but this is just beyond the pale.

Seriously though, consensus UI design is a bad idea. Collaborative is good, but having to agree on everything (voting) is bad. You end up compromising the design vision. One of you has to be responsible for wonderful experiences. Collaborate tons, but in the end, make a decision.

You don't need sarcasm for that. You just need to understand the other person's point of view (empathy) and acknowledge it.

Save sarcasm for when you think the other person has taken too many hippie pills and is hugging too many trees spreading love hither and thither while passionately trolloping through the glade.



Ha ha ha :) I feel like I should insert some Office Space, "case of the Mondays" quote :)


I appreciate you sharing your experiences.


I think that's exactly what I am saying - there is a pinch of truth to all of it; that's why the deeper impact is felt over time when the humor of it fades. I'm glad that this has given you a moment of pause. Having conversations like this is very helpful for me - that's why I chose to start writing this down; it makes it more real, which makes me take more notice.


I agree with what you are saying. Ultimately, I think it is Clark's role to architect the most user friendly experiences. This is especially true because I implement the UIs that we discuss.

As much as I try, I don't think I can ever fully detach myself and my thoughts from the understanding that the decisions have to eventually be put into action. As such, I think I become more narrow minded, even subconsciously. It makes me want to think less outside-the-box than might be necessary because it means altering or totally removing something I have already done.

Where I *can* put some great input into UI design is going form the "sketch" to "UI" phase. Here, I take the sketch, which is a rough idea of what the experience should be and then I build a UI from it. I have free reign at this point and can / have come up with some very cool stuff.

Once we get into the full UI part, though, I think it is effective for Clark and I to have a good discussion; but ultimately, I have to learn to be more willing to explore his ideas rather than push back.

Plus, as my father used to say, "It's easier to show someone, 'No', than to tell them, 'No'." Complaining less and implementing more will, at the very least, explore an idea more thoroughly rather than nipping it in the bud. And, more often than not, using this approach shows ME that it was not the bad choice that I saw in my mind. And, if it is the bad choice, at least now we can have a real and constructive conversation about it.


I know we talked about this a bit already, but what I didn't get a chance to say is that I think your efforts to bring more positivity into the world in general and particularly into your life are wonderful. I think Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world" and by being un-sarcastic and more direct/honest/positive with your expressing of yourself, you're certainly doing that.

I'm going to probably keep being as sarcastic as always, but I know that I will definitely be more mindful of the appropriateness of it because of you. So, thanks!

Now you've got to work on that "there is more to life than programming" thing... ;)


This is an interesting point, and makes me think of something that I feel is related, at least for me personally. Both my wife and I tend to create "humour" out of making fun of people. Of course we do it behind their backs, and this is generally strangers, not people we know. You know what I mean - you see someone wearing a ridiculous outfit, or walking their tiny dog in a stroller, and you laugh and make fun of them. I think lots of people do that. But ultimately I think it's a bad thing. This attitude that it's funny to make fun of people. It's certainly not something that we want to teach our children, so we're trying to curb the behaviour.

I realize that it's quite different, as it's not about a behaviour that directly hurts someone else, but to me it feels similar. To me it indicates an innate "meanness" that I really don't want to have as a part of me.

Sorry if this is OT.


This is similar to the sentiment that stood out the most to me in Conan O'Brian's farewell words:

"All I ask of you is one thing: please don't be cynical. I hate cynicism - it's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere."

I was a little shocked at first. I often consider one of the strengths of many of my favorite comediens a to be cynicism but, I suppose, I was confusing things. I keep thinking of what he meant by that and how I can improve on my communication and relationships by finding the most positive ways to work through the negative parts of ever day interactions.


@David - I loved Coco's farewell speech. I listened to it over and over for the next few days. You're right- it really does make one pause and reconsider... (not that your attempt to give up sarcasm isn't inspiring, Ben. You're just not a cute, gangly redhead ;-).



Not off-topic at all; and, something that I am sure most people can relate to. I live in NYC and one of the best things about the city is the "people watching" opportunities. I do what you are saying with my friends in the city all the time. When you are doing it, it seem so harmless. I am not 100% how I feel about it. In theory, there's probably better ways to use time... but on the the hand, it's just fun :)

@David, @Wendy,

I don't know much about late-night tv (that curfew my parents gave me at age 10 never seemed to ware off); I'll have to check it out on YouTube or something.


@Ben, and all...

My theory is that everybody wants to rule the world. Props to T4F.

But it's true. I think that by making fun of another, you feel superior. I'm not attributing good or bad to that position. I'm merely making a statement like, "I chose to come to work today so I could feed myself versus volunteering my time to help someone else in need." In other words, there's a certain amount of "superiority" we must take on in order to succeed and have more in the future.

Taken in extreme excess, you get Hitler or psychopaths. Taken to an extreme, you get an aggressive person. On the other hand, taken to the other end's extreme, you end up with tree huggers and Mother Theresa. Most of us fall in the middle and sometimes we choose the high road (tree hugging) and at other times we choose the "win" path -- simply because we must else we won't have food/shelter/clothing.



I think there is definitely a lot to that theory. I know people who seem to make it a regular habit to cut others (myself included) down. I see it happening, and I understand what it happens (as you allude to), so I try not to take offense to it. It's not always easy, but sometimes you just need to stop and remind yourself that this person is doing that because they need to in order to feel good about themselves. When you embrace that, it makes it much easier to let it roll off your back.

I believe in love. I believe in compassion. I believe in human rights. I believe that we can afford to give more of these gifts to the world around us because it costs us nothing to be decent and kind and understanding. And, I want you to know that when you land on this site, you are accepted for who you are, no matter how you identify, what truths you live, or whatever kind of goofy shit makes you feel alive! Rock on with your bad self!
Ben Nadel