The Trait That Destroys Likability: Sarcasm

The Trait That Destroys Likability: Sarcasm

by Tracy Johnson

When is the last time you looked forward to being around someone who always complains? Or that couple that bickers and argues at dinner? Or relentlessly makes fun of others? Is it comfortable being with someone who seems to find the dark side of life? Generally, people with a personality that is ruled by sarcasm have fewer friends.

That’s how it goes with radio personalities, too. And you need more friends, because friends become fans. And fans drive ratings.

Generally, likable personalities are popular and attract more listeners. What’s more, those listeners tend to want to spend more time with a truly likable personality. It makes sense, doesn’t it?

So what is it about sarcasm that causes radio personalities to be less likable? Start with the traits listeners connect with most.

Listeners Respond to Positive Attitudes

Think about the traits of  friends you tend to hang around with most. How would you describe them? Likely, you use terms like fun, funny, upbeat and positive. They are relatable and vulnerable. They share your common interests and it’s just comfortable being with them.

When they’re in a bad mood, you probably find an excuse to make it an early night and get out of their way, right? If they stay in that space for awhile, you end the relationship. Why? Because they’ve become less likable. It’s harder being around them.

It’s the same way on the radio. Unlikable, edgy personas can fill a role on a multi-personality show, but only as a secondary or tertiary role player. If you want to establish a long-term relationship with listeners, you need to find personality attributes in your real life that can be turned into character traits that become part of your personality brand.

Authentic and generally upbeat, positive trait are just more fun to be around. That’s who we connect with and root for.

Sarcasm Is Anti-Likable

There are many ways to make yourself more likable, of course, but to really turn up the charm, it helps to turn down the sarcasm.

Now I love a sarcastic sense of humor, and I’ve found that many broadcasters share a biting, sarcastic wit. But maybe we should check that at the studio door when performing.

If you accept the premise that likable traits are important, the opposite is also true. Unlikable won’t work.

And many people don’t get the humor in sarcasm. How many times have you been in conversations, and had to soften a comment with, “I’m just kidding?” It happens all the time…on both sides of the conversation. Who wins? It makes me wonder.

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According to several studies, women use humor to connect and bond; while it’s more common for male humor to be include put-downs, humiliations, verbal duels, and practical jokes.

In a Psychology Today article– Think Sarcasm is Funny? Think Again — author Clifford Lazarus PhD, had to say about sarcasm:

Despite smiling outwardly, most people who receive sarcastic comments feel put down and usually think the sarcastic person is a jerk. Indeed, it’s not surprising that the origin of the word sarcasm derives from the Greek word “sarkazein” which literally means “to tear or strip the flesh off”… [WOW]

When you come right down to it, sarcasm is a subtle form of bullying and most bullies are angry, insecure cowards.Now I’m not saying all sarcasm is bad. It’s just better used sparingly – like a potent spice in cooking. Too much spice and the dish will be overwhelmed by it. Similarly, an occasional dash of sarcastic wit can spice up a chat and add an element of humor to it.

But a big or steady serving of sarcasm will overwhelm the emotional flavor of any conversation and taste very bitter to its recipient. In essence, sarcasm is easy (as is mostly anger, criticism and meanness) while true, harmless wit takes talent.

On the radio, when your listeners can’t see facial expressions or body language, using sarcasm is even more dangerous. Use it with caution and never at a listener’s expense.

I still remember hearing an air personality playing a trivia quiz with two listener contestants. He asked a question about Ellen DeGeneres (it was her birthday). They both got the first round of questions wrong. His reaction was dry and sarcastic:

Boy, you guys are real Ellen DeGeneres experts, aren’t you?

Neither of them laughed. It came off mean and judgmental rather than welcoming and playful.

Yet Sarcasm Has A Place

There’s a difference between having a sarcastic personality and using sarcasm as part of your sense of humor. A big difference. When you conduct your character profile, a trait might be a sarcastic sense of humor. That’s fine, as long as it isn’t what defines a personality brand.

But there’s often a place for a truly sarcastic person as a secondary character on a multi-personality show. The edgy personality with a biting wit can contribute value, but it should always be as a secondary character, not a high profile, leading performer.

Another way to use this trait is through an exaggerated character as explained and detailed here. Maybe you can harvest those qualities for humor while actually positioning main characters as being the likable good-guys that listeners cheer for.

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Overcoming Sarcasm

If your radio show relies on sarcasm, it’s time to adjust. Now. It’s not sustainable.

If, on the other hand, you are a likable personality with a sarcastic sense of humor, make sure listeners know when you are joking. That comes through delivery. Your voice can provide cues that are otherwise delivered nonverbally in person. Put that smile and eye twinkle into your voice. And exaggerate it. The audience is blind. They can’t see the body language.

As if you needed one more reason to dial down the sarcasm, here’s one more. The easier it is to listen to your show, the more the audience will feel a part of it. Don’t make it difficult.

Imagine what the listener thinks when it’s a miserable weather day and you sarcastically say,

What a BEAUTIFUL day! (of course, followed by an invisible eye roll – that they can’t see!)

The audience has to work to figure out that you’re joking. These people are putting on mascara with one hand while burning the toast, feeding the dog, braiding hair, checking email, texting a friend and signing a permission slip.

So be careful with the sarcasm.


Sarcasm is rampant in the halls of radio stations. Let’s face it. Many of us thrive on a jaded style of humor to crack each other up. It’s edgy and funny. And so we tend to bring that same humor to the air. But that same humor that lights up the hallways can backfire on the air, especially on a female-targeted station.

One more thought: Sarcasm above all has to be laugh out loud funny. Otherwise it just sounds bitter and mean. And who wants to listen to bitter and mean? But bitter, mean AND funny can be REALLY TRULY funny…if  in small doses. Just don’t build your show around it.


Author: Tracy Johnson

Tracy Johnson specializes in radio talent coaching, radio consulting for programming and promotions and developing digital strategies for brands.

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