Most people think they know what sarcasm is and could recognize it if they heard it.
Most people would be wrong.
Sarcasm is one of those areas of human behavior which has historically been a little difficult to study. But psychologists and researchers have gained some insight into sarcasm and how people use it, and how well people can identify (or can’t identify) sarcasm. For example, Derks et al. (2008) found that emoticons can convey sarcasm, and in fact in some ways can act as a suitable replacement for much of our nonverbal behavior. In a small experiment, Williams et al. (2009) found that people who made sarcastic statements tended to avert their eye gaze, suggesting a simple way to confirm whether a statement was intended to be sarcastic or not.
But it was Rockwell’s (2006) survey of sarcasm that I think produced the most interesting, recent findings in this area. Out of 218 respondents to her survey, 25 percent didn’t complete the question asking for an example of a sarcastic comment they remember making (perhaps 25 percent of us don’t use sarcasm?). Of the remaining 75 percent who did complete the question, only 45 percent of the people actually came up with a sarcastic remark.
Before delving into the other findings of the study, I think it’s important to highlight that finding: the majority of people — 55 percent — who responded to this survey thought they were giving an example of a sarcastic remark they made, when in fact what they gave was a non-sarcastic remark! A couple of examples — “You really need to stop letting things blow your head up because you’re not that cute” and “I coach a girls’ softball team and during a game I yelled at a girl jogging to the base, ‘My grandmother can run faster than than.'”
It’s no wonder why sarcasm is so often misused or misunderstood — half of us can’t recognize sarcasm in the first place. Something we may mean in a sarcastic manner may be seen as being just plain mean because it was never actually sarcasm in the first place.
Sarcasm is simply saying something intended in a mean-spirited, derogatory or unpleasant manner while meaning the exact opposite. Most people who use sarcasm expect that the recipient of the sarcastic message to recognize the contradiction.
The researcher found that most (69 out of 73) sarcasm used positive language to imply a negative intent, such as “You did a wonderful parking job” or “Obviously, you are the brains of this organization.”
The study also found that most (67 out of 73) sarcasm was directed at others, not at oneself. Very few people, apparently, care enough to make sarcastic remarks toward themselves.
Most comments (62 out of 73) were not considered serious, but were instead primarily teasing in nature. Examples of these included, “Someone hit the door frame and I said, ‘You know, there’s a door right there,” and “When my friend obviously didn’t know the words to a song, I told her how well she sang.”
Less than half (30 of 73) sarcasm was used to evaluate someone else’s performance or choices. Prior studies had found that sarcasm used to evaluate another person was usually more common and used the majority of the time. Such examples include, “‘Oh that looks fabulous!’ to a boyfriend who was wearing something totally inappropriate,” and “‘Nice shot, Sally!’ to my friend who just made a bad shot in golf.”
One of the study’s closing sentences sums up the use of sarcasm best:
Sarcasm represents a difficult verbal behavior, and many speakers who attempt to use it, fail to accomplish their task.
Sarcasm is indeed difficult to use successfully, and can often be taken in a way not intended, leaving a trail of hurt feelings in your path. When used well, it can resemble an art form. Unless you’re well-versed in the art, you should leave the sarcasm to the professionals. Like comedians.
Derks, D., Bos, Arjan E. R., & von Grumbkow, J. (2008). Emoticons and online message interpretation. Social Science Computer Review, 26(3), 379-388.
Rockwell, P. (2006). ‘Yeah, right!’: A linguistic analysis of self-reported sarcastic messages and their contexts. Presented at the Southern States Communication Association annual convention, Dallas, TX.
Williams, J.A., Burns, E.L., & Harmon, E.A. (2009). Insincere utterances and gaze: Eye contact during sarcastic statements. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 08(2), 565-572.