This morning in therapy, my shrink said I should try to be less sarcastic. I laughed. She stared at me.
Oh. She was serious. I hadn’t realized. Because here’s what it sounded like when she said it:
“You should think about completely changing your personality.”
My shrink is pretty rad and not, as a rule, given to casually suggesting I alter who I am, so I figured I’d misheard. But nope.
“Sarcasm is important to me,” I said, swatting the air, waving away her expertise in one deft move. Therapists love when you do that. “It’s a generational thing. It’s how we talk to one another.”
“Well,” she said, “I have a lot of patients who think sarcasm is important, and it’s not helping any of you.”
Ouch. But also yay? Lots of us are fucked up — different kinds of fucked up, for sure, but these invisible people she invoked, they’ve all sat where I sit, on that couch, looking for help. So we’re in this together. Only, the thing we’re in together is, as I’ve always seen it, one of the best parts of my personality. Now here was the woman I pay weekly to help me wade through my troubles telling me it’s actually a detriment.
“I’m not saying not to be playful,” she added, answering my unvoiced worry. (I’m pretty sure she has a magic shrink tool that allows her to see my thoughts in visible bubbles over my head.) “Just, you know, don’t do it all the time,” she suggested. “And do it less with men.”
Comb the racks of OkCupid and you will find profiles — my own defunct one included — rife with requirements of wit and sarcasm. I’m not alone in valuing biting humor — but it’s also not lost on me that everyone (well, almost everyone) on OkCupid is single. So was my shrink onto something?
We’d found our way to the topic because I was rehashing the latest installment of a drawn-out, unrewarding thing with Flaky Guy, which had been going nowhere slowly. After a few promising dates and two makeouts, things fizzled in the most infuriating way: He had the pathological need to make plans with me and cancel them, and I had the compulsive habit of letting him. It had been going on for months (as in 10, not two), and after finally giving him and his flaky ambivalence the ol’ heave-ho, I’d just heard from him again. His lady-boner-killing wussiness seemed to dissipate when he drank, and the night he contacted me he must have been drinking a lot, because his texts were decisive and aggressive. I liked it. He tried to coax me out of the warmth of my bed to meet him in his. I didn’t budge, but I was interested all over again.
Only now, two days later, we were stuck in our familiar holding pattern, having more trouble making plans than any two people who aren’t brain-injured ever should.
“Maybe I should just read you the texts,” I said to my shrink. She and I had been trying to get to the bottom of the situation for ages. He was a cipher and would remain one unless he materialized bodily in my sessions. But me, me we could try to figure out. That’s why I was there, after all.
I read her text after text, a witty series of parries and ripostes, his failing persistence and my flirtatious rebuffing. “You know a 2 a.m. drink sounds fun,” he wrote. “Not gonna happen,” I countered. “Well,” he responded, “if you find yourself suddenly caffeinated or wanting a drink or desperately needing to visit [insert his address here], just call.” “You’re far less ambivalent when you drink,” I wrote. “You should consider doing it more frequently and heavily.”
“Why don’t you just be straightforward with him?” my shrink interrupted. In my realm, those texts were straightforward. In one I’d even been bold enough to say I’d go out with him only if in the cold, sober light of day he still wanted to — and actually had the balls to go through with it. I couldn’t believe my therapist didn’t see how disarmingly and vibrantly straightforward I’d been.
I am intensely pro-therapy and will eventually consider anything my shrink asks me to no matter how uncomfortable or icky-feeling or just plain wrong-seeming it is because I figure she knows better than I do about matters like these. I turned her idea over in my head.
“So like, what should I say?” I asked warily.
“Just tell him you’d like to see him again, and give him a specific time.”
My nose scrunched reflexively, my lips twisted into a line.
“Why are you doing that?”
I covered my entire face with my hands. “I don’t know!” I said through my fingers. “That’s just so … ugh!”
She was staring at me again. I knew how it sounded: At what point in my life had simply telling someone I wanted to see him become as risky as declaring my undying love or accidentally showing up to school in my underwear?
Did sarcasm help with fear? Yes, of course. I am terrified of rejection, petrified of humiliation. Sarcasm helps me deflect that. If I’m rejected, well hey, no big — I didn’t really care anyway! Sarcasm is great in that way. Not so great in the way of boyfriend-snagging.
“And don’t wait too long,” my shrink added as I gathered my things. One final bit of advice before I was out the door and off to deal with Flaky Guy on my own.
I stood by her elevator, a blank text message open in my hand. I took a deep breath, typed and hit send. I looked at what I’d written: “Friday! 9ish! Let’s actually finally do this.”
I realized immediately that my hasty attempt at earnestness had ended up sounding less like an invitation to drinks and more like an invitation to my vagina. I fought the urge to send a second text that said, “Erm … ’this’=date. Realized that sounded shady. Kbye.” Oy.
But he’d made his desire to sleep with me so abundantly clear just a few nights ago, I reasoned. Well, that was when he was drunk, my inner critic piped up. And maybe he’s changed his mind, inner critic’s good friend self-deprecation chimed in. Never mind that he was the troubled one who couldn’t get it together to go out with me again even though he had the apparent need to keep asking. My thoughts swirled and I immediately regretted trying to be straightforward. No wonder I like sarcasm — who the fuck wants to deal with inner critic and self-deprecation?
It’s not news that snark is how many of us operate these days. The Daily Show, Gawker, The Onion, Twitter — for many of us, our daily life is one big witshow, an opportunity to peacock around a little and have people respond. Those of us who are sarcastic think we’re smarter than people who aren’t. We think people who don’t get us don’t get it. For many of us, eliciting a laugh from something intelligent and hilarious and biting is a way to feel better about ourselves for one glorious moment. It never occurred to me that it was also a shield. I mean, yes, I know, Chandler Bing, yadda yadda yadda, but c’mon — this is Brooklyn, 2012. Isn’t everyone sarcastic?
I recently dated someone 12 years younger than I am (I’m 35) who is Canadian. (I have no idea if that matters. It feels like it does.) He was playful and bright and silly but not, come to think of it, terribly sarcastic. When I was and he wasn’t, I inevitably seemed mean — and because of the age difference, when I seemed mean, I felt like an old witch picking on a little kid, which I did not enjoy. So I made a concerted effort not to be too snarky when I was with him, and we had the best times when I could relax a little and just be real.
But sarcasm can be a hoot. I have the least fun with friends who aren’t sarcastic but often have the most meaningful conversations with them. Not everyone is all things at all times, and I’m not a wit-generating robot (or am I?), but in general, that’s the truth.
During a particularly bummerish dating spell once, I said to a (very sarcastic) male friend of mine, “I think maybe guys don’t like girls who are funny.” He said, “Yes they do, they just don’t like girls who are funnier than they are.” I thought that was insightful, but now I wonder if maybe we’re both wrong — and we’re sure as hell both single. Maybe guys (and girls) just don’t like girls (and guys) who are so guarded that sarcasm is the only way they operate.
“People just want to feel safe,” offered another friend — who is in a stable relationship — when I blabbered on about my Flaky Guy problem. “I know your deal,” she said. “You’re super strong, you don’t need anyone — but just remember that people only want to feel safe.” And sarcasm may make people feel delighted for a few minutes, but I guess it doesn’t make them feel terribly protected.
In the end, I never heard from Flaky Guy again, which is par for the course with him. (What do you expect? His parents named him Flaky Guy for god’s sake.) Whatever issues he has obviously outweigh his desire to meet me for drinks.
But even I know my final text, my attempt at blatant honesty, isn’t to blame (you shut up, inner critic and self-deprecation). So I continue to contemplate my therapist’s advice. I’m still sarcastic (paging Capt. Obvious), but I’m mulling the idea of trying to be a little less so sometimes. It isn’t easy, but I guess I realize that if I want someone to be open and unguarded with me, it only makes sense that he should get the same in return. [Raises hands to face, twists lips into a line.]
Previously: Love in the Time of Google.
Carla Sosenko's writing has appeared in Jezebel, Marie Claire, Self magazine, Heeb magazine, Laughspin, and various other publications. Her first play, Headcase, was produced in the 2001 New York International Fringe Festival, and her short story “Clutter” was a semifinalist in the Nimrod Awards. Follow her on Twitter @carlasosenko and check out her website, carlasosenko.com.