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How to be witty without falling into the trap of resorting to snark

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Wit isn't mean-spirited or unkind -- wit, at its best, is a positive force in conversation.

I’ve always been secretly jealous of witty people. Not funny people, exactly — class clowns and slapstick don’t really inspire envy. But the truly witty do — those rare people who always seem to say the exact right phrase at the exact right moment that make everyone laugh in surprise at the cleverness of the wordplay.

During the years I spent blogging, I managed to develop a certain type of wit in my writing that never quite managed to make it into the real world. Sometimes I spent time cultivating that written wit, but more often it would happen naturally as I banged away at the keyboard. But it never happened naturally in conversation. My brain just never figured out how to move more quickly than the words that spilled out of my mouth.

As it turns out, though, wit is something that can be learned linguistically in the same way I learned to use wit in my writing — through practice. To prove this, author James Geary wrote the literal book on wit … and, according to Quartz magazine, he wrote each chapter about a specific manifestation of wit (think puns, rhymes, quips, rap) — in that manifestation. 

The wittiest among us are simply people who make unusual connections between words and ideas. There’s a refreshing element of surprise to these observations that prompts a smile or a wince from the listener who didn’t see the link until it was presented …

Geary’s book is proof positive that being creative about language takes practice and can be mastered. It’s not just a natural talent.

Like other forms of creativity it is born of knowledge. Having a rich vocabulary is a starting point. Curiosity is another important element. Appreciating language in all the places and ways it’s used — from pop music to literary fiction, scientific writing to slang — makes it easier to generate unusual combinations.

The key to wit is that it’s not snarky. It isn’t mean-spirited or unkind — wit, at its best, is a positive force in conversation. But how can we learn to be witty without falling into the trap of resorting to snark?

I think genuine curiosity is the key to being witty and charitable. I’ve watched in fascination as the internet has changed and shaped the way we use language, particularly in the generations growing up with social media. The way they use language seems to shift as fast as Apple rolls out new updates, and very few adults from older generations are willing to appreciate these rapid linguistic shifts. There’s a tone of disdain and even derision when the subject of millennials and their hashtags comes up — but there’s a lot of creativity and linguistic adaptation that’s being overlooked in the process.

One thing we all know about social media is that it’s very hard to capture tone. When I first started blogging, we used to joke that we needed a sarcasm font to let everyone know when we were being sarcastic, in order to eliminate the accidental hurt feelings that inevitably resulted.

We never got a sarcasm font, but we did get #sarcasm — which is infinitely more effective than a font ever could be.

When it comes to wit in conversation, the same tendency to dismiss new slang (please note that I’m not talking about bad language here) as “vulgar” or “uneducated” is a missed opportunity to expand our vocabulary, and even capture new aspects of emotion that we didn’t have the exact right word for.

For example, take current teenage slang favorite “salty.” Salty means a little bitter, a little angry, and a little sassy all rolled into one. But what it definitely does not mean is any of those three words alone. It’s the combination and the hint of attitude that combine to make someone’s attitude “salty” — and no other description quite captures the expression.

So instead of dismissing your teenager’s seemingly incomprehensible language, try asking him or her what those words mean. Even if learning teenage slang doesn’t improve your ability to banter, you’ll at least know what your kid is saying — and maybe the fact that you even asked could open up a whole discussion about vocabulary, curiosity, wit, and charitable conversation.

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