We've all been in the unhappy presence of snark. We know people who make critical, cutting, biting or snide comments when they could have easily said the same thing in a more pleasant way. The problem with snarkiness is that people find it entertaining. There is always an audience for gratuitous meanness wrapped in a thin slice of humor. The Urban Dictionary coined a term for it - snarcastic - that cynical voice that makes us laugh at someone else's expense and then, hopefully, regret it.
I don't remember growing up with the word "snarky" and was trying to find out how long it's been in our lexicon of nasty behavior. The Grammarphobia blog notes this about the word's history: "The earliest published reference for the verb 'snark,' meaning to snore or snort, is from 1866, according to the Oxford English Dictionary." Apparently by 1882 it also meant to find fault with or to nag. In adjective form as a way to refer to someone as irritable, it's been around since about1906. Lewis Carroll used it in his poem "The Hunting of the Snark" as an imaginary figure.
So snark has been around a lot longer than most of us realize. In fact, why date it to 1882 when we can go all the way back to the biblical book of Proverbs to find evidence for it everywhere - even if it is not mentioned by name? Language that hurts, damages and dismisses others is referenced in virtually every chapter of Proverbs as bringing harm to the one who uses it and to its victims. Here are a few choice selections:
• "Death and life are in the power of the tongue..." (18:21)
• "An evil man is ensnared by the transgression of his lips. But the righteous will escape from trouble." (12:13)
• "The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, but the mouth of fools spouts folly." (12:15)
• "Wise men store up knowledge, but with the mouth of the foolish, ruin is at hand." (10:14)
• "The one who guards his mouth preserves his life. The one who opens wide his lips comes to ruin." (13:3)
• "In the mouth of the foolish is a rod for his back, but the lips of the wise will protect them." (14:3)
• "He who guards his mouth and his tongue, guards his soul from troubles." (21:23)
We all know that speech has this immense power, but we don't always harness that power responsibly. We love sarcasm. It's the foundation of the T-shirt and bumper sticker industry (Here's this week's bumper sticker winner: "I'm not speeding. I'm qualifying.") What we don't realize is how diminishing sarcasm can be for the growth and esteem of those on the receiving end.
But, wait, there's good news. A new paper published in Science and reported in The New York Times testing morality in everyday behaviors found that while there was no difference in the survey between behaviors of religious and nonreligious participants, it did find that good deeds are "contagious." In their words: "People on the receiving end of an act of kindness were about 10 percent more likely than the average person to do something nice themselves later in the day." The only down side of this research is that those who did acts of kindness were slightly more likely to commit a small act of rudeness "as if drawing on moral credit from their previous act."
This new study should give us renewed energy to help goodness go viral and be ever more careful about language that is mean, snarky, sarcastic or cynical. As Proverbs warns, we don't want our lips to be "the snare of the soul."
So please add these two questions to your Elul challenge:
• What can I not say right now because I am concerned about someone else's feelings and because it will reflect poorly on my moral choices?
• What can I make a point of saying right now that will make someone else feel safe, open, special, holy and happy?