my manager told me to be less sarcastic at work, but I don’t want to

A reader writes:

I have a very dry and sarcastic sense of humor, which usually goes over very well at my office. All of us employ snarky humor (I just happen to do it the most), making light of problem clients and ridiculous requests from the Ding-Dongs Merrily on High. For example, we received one arbitrary directive that all correspondence has to include our complete titles and that we have to answer our phones this way. So now we do the whole “Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet” thing even when addressing each other in the office. “Will you be ordering from [Deli] today, Missus Jane Doe, Administrative Assistant to Betty Smith?”

We have one manager who generally chimes in on the snarking or at least laughs along with the rest of us. But sometimes she’s in a contrary mood and pretends not to get it or to be so far above it all — but only toward me. She never directs her “Let’s not be mean” or “Well, why would we want to do that?” (in response to my “I guess we’ll just send smoke signals until they fix the network”) to anyone else.

Twice so far she’s called me in for a talk about how something I said to someone was inappropriate. I wasn’t told what or to whom, just that I need to “be careful.” But if I don’t even know what the specific thing I said was, I can’t “be careful,” I can only continue the status quo or stop altogether. I tend to think it was just her giving me a hard time due to her hot and cold behavior in general, but even if that’s the case, I have to work with her even if she’s unreasonable. (Due to something she said this last time — “Call people by their name and nothing else” — I think she might have been referring to how my coworker and I call each other Bubblehead and Dipstick, but we’ve been doing that for almost a year, and she never said a word to “Bubblehead” about it, just me. Yes, I’m Dipstick).

On the one hand, someone’s opinion of the situation might be that it’s the workplace and there shouldn’t be any fooling around with sarcasm. Yet if I eliminate it, I’m snubbing my coworkers who (outwardly) claim that I make them happy by making work more fun. I don’t see that just cutting back on it will help, because I never know what random thing is going to be taken the wrong way. What would you advise me to do here?

Scale it back. Way back.

Occasional sarcasm can be fine, but when taken too far, it can come across as negative, bitter, and cutting. It’s understandable that your manager doesn’t want an environment full of that — in any respect, but especially directed toward clients or the company, which you say it is.

You also say that you do more of it than anyone else, so it’s not surprising that she’s targeted her requests to scale it back to you.

What you describe might be entertaining to you, but if you step back and look at it more objectively, it’s no doubt an unpleasant and negative environment for some people to work in (I wouldn’t want to work surrounded by negativity, even couched as jokes), it’s really inappropriate toward the people who are paying your bills and your salaries, it sets up an “us vs. them” mentality that’s the opposite of helpful at work, and it could be hugely problematic if overheard by the wrong person. And perhaps most importantly of all, a constant flow of that kind of thing really does change your attitude toward your workplace. If you and others are steeped in caustic remarks about work all day, that has an impact. (Ask anyone who’s been close to a coworker who complains about their boss all the time.)

You say that if you eliminate the sarcasm, you’ll be “snubbing” your coworkers, who enjoy it. But come on. Would it be snubbing your coworkers to stop telling them dirty jokes that they enjoyed? Both are inappropriate in the workplace. And, uh, your your job isn’t to entertain your coworkers.

Your manager has made a reasonable request. I’d follow it. (If nothing else, because she’s your manager and this is her prerogative, but also because she happens to be right.)

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