When to Keep the Snark

Here, I briefly talk about myself as a gateway to the idea that perhaps we should be more tactful in our use of contempt in our own lives.  As for the Blog (i), sarcasm is too integral to its appeal; people know what to expect and that is fair enough.

If it wasn’t for my experiences with work and tough relationships, there would be no need to “reverse engineer”.  In short, I have found that when I take the “war out of my words” that the message is more likely to be heard by those that don’t share my beliefs.

Reverse Engineering

At work, which was a gun-toting, god-fearing, military-loving, and, liberal-hating kind of a place, is where I decided to take a turn from engineering to psychology.  I wanted to understand why we were so different because I certainly did not fit in.  I drove a Prius, hated God, loathed the military, and disliked my lunch being served to me as a “hit” of dopamine.  Thank you shooting-range.

This was a company that did some “important” work like aiding and abetting the Predator (ii) for our “freedom”.  Now to my point.  I asked a coworker who used harsh punishment on his kids if he was aware of the psychological costs?  He told me to not “reverse engineer” his technique.  He analyzes electronic circuits, so why can’t he analyze himself?  Because he perceived criticism.

The Four Horsemen (iii)

In my household, most everything was an argument.  I wanted to understand what was in my words and style of relating that triggered others.  Therapists didn’t help but the research did.  I found Gottman’s empirical work on relationships to be of most value.  There are four styles of relating to one another that turn arguing into fighting: contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

These styles of relating to one another should be minimized in personal relationships.  In fact, being on the receiving end of contempt increases stress hormones and inflammation in the body, which makes us more susceptible to physical and mental illnesses.  Contempt and hostility are early warning signs that relationships are heading south.

  • Contempt is when we feel that someone (or their idea) is inferior because we view them (or their idea) to have a negative characteristic, which makes them unworthy of our consideration.  We show this by using body-language—mockery, eye-rolling, sneering, dismissiveness—and with how we use our words—sarcasm, patronizing, snarking, name-calling.
  • Criticism is to find fault in something.  Unlike contempt, it doesn’t take on a position of superiority.  Even if indirect, criticisms are usually taken in a “global” way and personalized.  I suppose what we do, what we have, and who we know are about us.
  • Defensiveness is the result of criticism.  When criticized, we don’t like the person and the message will be lost, unless they are our superiors.  Instead, we make excuses for the fault and fight back, anything to feel the sting and keep our reputations.
  • Stonewalling is either a deliberate or unintentional refusal to communicate and get on better terms with someone.

The War Out of Words

There is no way to take the war out of contempt as it is meant to hurt.  It’s up to us to be mindful when we start feeling contemptuous towards someone and find ways to prevent it from escalating, see an example.  Not surprisingly, this is what causes a bad marriage.

You’re ‘tired?’ Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do is sit and expect me to do everything. I don’t have time to deal with another kid. Your are pathetic?”

As far as criticism, there is a way to make it less direct.  If you are already at the stage of resentment and indignation, then contempt may be a few steps away and this won’t work.  Otherwise, just reformat it to be in terms of a complaint instead.

  • Criticism: Why do you always do it like that?  I hate when you do that?
  • Complaint: “I feel” hurt when you don’t wash your dishes because it creates extra work for me.


i) I am impressed with the writing at freethought blogs.  We get our points across in a very colorful and pointed way.  Depending on our goals, it may be too “sharp” though for some.  On the other hand, studies show that when we debate, we end up only believing more strongly in what we originally believed.  In other words, what is the point?  Those that believe need to be entertained.

ii) The Predator was a remotely piloted aircraft by General Atomics.  I am pretty sure it was in combat for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  It was something to be proud of, but no one would dare talk about the casualties that it left behind.

iii) The Four Horsemen is from the Apocalypse and means impending doom.  It’s a metaphor for what status your marriage is in if you are using contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.  It is empirically validated by the Gottmans with over 30 years worth of research.


  1. says

    There is no way to take the war out of contempt as it is meant to hurt. It’s up to us to be mindful when we start feeling contemptuous towards someone and find ways to prevent it from escalating, see an example. Not surprisingly, this is what causes a bad marriage.

    You’re ‘tired?’ Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child and read your idiotic books, expecting me to do everything. I don’t have time to deal with another kid. Could you be any more pathetic?”

    The contempt on display is only a result of his own entitlement and his contempt for his wife’s hard work, as if his working an eight hour day magically makes it okay for him to act like yet another child for his wife to take care of.

    • musing says

      I always appreciate your comments Kitty. I understand why you would conclude that. You are correct in that his behavior affects others but that is not the most effective way of solving the problem. The problem is how two people get along by way of mutual respect. When you frame it that way, you are taking sides and pitting two people up against each other. You can’t apply a political movement to interpersonal relationships. Ask Gottman who spent 30 years in the lab studying relationships.

      Your perspective is much needed as we do need to stick up for the rights of females, but it must be used in a way where both party’s interactions are looked at equally. Both have needs and wants, neither are entitled, and it’s a matter of getting along. The point of the comment had nothing to do with excusing his behavior and everything to do with there are better ways to get across your needs and wants besides using contempt.

      Now, if the husband believes he is entitled and is not genuinely tired and refused to come up with a solution that would prevent him from taking advantage of her, then the husband is clearly in the wrong. But we don’t know the details of the story as in we don’t know what this guy faces, nor do we know if he is a misogynist. We have to look at the details.


      WMDKitty, let me rephrase this with the utmost sincerity, which reveals my true thoughts and feelings. First, I am sorry for how I responded. After rereading, I was dismissive of your point, which is a sign of contempt for your idea, meaning that I violated one of the four horsemen. Rightly or wrongly, the reason why I didn’t give it attention is that I lost faith in feminism’s ability to work on the individual level. This could be totally incorrect, and I am open to learning, so I can adjust if necessary. Also, one important thing that I have learned through my therapy and studies is that we all need to be validated. Our points and ideas are not us but they feel like it. So I did not validate your idea. But I also felt invalidated because my idea that how we communicate our message matters was not acknowledged. Again, these are just feelings and are better thought of as not wrong or right, as they “just are”. I don’t think either of us intentionally went in to do this though. But the important thing is that we are held accountable to one another. That is just what I learned. It seems to work for me, but I don’t think it will work on our enemies. Hopefully, I didn’t make any here.

      • says

        Of course communication is important, I’m pointing out that her response is not coming out of the blue, and is clearly preceded by a pattern of behavior on the husband’s part. By the time it gets to the point described, she has already tried to talk to him, only to be met with a smile, nod, and “Yes, dear, that’s nice.” Communication can’t happen or work when one party is just… ignoring it.

        I believe that functioning adults sharing a household should do equal amounts of upkeep/chores.

        • musing says

          Yes, that is true in that if it has escalated to that point, then there is probably a history of him doing that, which needs to be addressed.

          But – with all due respect – that still misses my point and focuses on your political point, namely of equality. In fact, your comment on 50/50 is an ideological statement, not one born out of pragmatism. If the goal is to “get along”, then you forgo the ideology and you do “what works”. The science on relationships actually says keeping tabs on who does what is actually the means to a bad relationship.

          So we can’t have this conversation because we are in it for different reasons. There needs to be a post that addresses how far we take our ideology and assesses the costs of doing so. Because taking ideological principles and fitting it on the individual level is often, not always, akin to putting a square peg in a round hole. If we say we are for “science”, then this is not an issue to take lightly.

          To be clear, this is my passion you are witnessing not disapproval. Your idea is very well taken in that we should strive for equality, but sometimes these principles breakdown when you look at them in detail. Give me a chance to explain it in the next post. That is all I ask.

  2. says

    “You can’t apply a political movement to interpersonal relationships.”
    Political movements typically seem to involve interpersonal issues. Racism as well as sexism and mysogyny. I don’t accept your assumption.


    You also assert imply a movement is not about equality and that is your implication and I don’t accept it. Equality as a goal does not assume individual steps have to treat groups the same. Simply analyzing attitudes is not a problem, you don’t even try to consider the one in fron of you.

    • musing says

      When I stepped back from that comment, which was a reflexive one, I said to myself that I may have violated what I preached. I appreciate you telling me this. I was very sincere, however, when I said that I appreciated her comments. I won’t take that back. But, in reading it now, my comment was dismissive of her point. Please develop your point further, so I can learn. I’m a little lost on what you mean by your first comment.

      This is important because it brings attention to my – completely unconscious until now – bias on the application of the movement. I’ve always been for feminism in principle but after studying the details of how we interact, I may not give it as much weight anymore. But isn’t that what these forums are for, so we can learn?

  3. says

    The topic is complicated at the moment. I use instrumental aggression in politics broadly, I’m in a socially complicated place with respect to changing political dispositions, and I need to think to separate my politics from it. That is in addition to WDMKitty’s feelings about all of this. I’m doing a lot of recalibrating and I’m a political creature first.

    • musing says

      A complicated, but eloquent, way of putting it. Yes, “instrumental aggression” is what we do here. Are you trying to be funny by writing this way? Not sure how to take that. I will play along then. I’m here to investigate the efficacy and effectiveness of “instrumental aggression” in meeting its objectives. Furthermore, its means to an end approach has costs that I seek to examine, namely, at the level of the “individual”.

      • musing says

        Isn’t there a better way to communicate than through comments? As far as what I meant by “that way”: you were pedantic that is all. As far as your contention with “political movements can’t be applied to interpersonal relationships”, please clarify that is all I’m asking because I want to spring this into a new post. It’s really good stuff, at least to me. I don’t want to misrepresent what you say. Thanks.

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