Ever feel confused when others use sarcasm? Ever become frustrated by the expectation that you should understand sarcasm? Well you are not alone! While this article can be used to help you better understand sarcasm, it will also validate the frustrations of sarcasm.

To be honest sarcasm is not a communication style that makes much sense. It is literally saying what you do not mean. No wonder people become confused and frustrated by sarcasm! As I wrote this article I myself found it very difficult to accurately describe how sarcasm looks and sounds into words. Although it’s not the most appropriate form of communication it does get used often so it would be beneficial for us to better understand it.

When we do not pick up on someone’s sarcasm it can affect our communication process and relationship with them. So how does not picking up on sarcasm affect our relationships? Well, since sarcasm is the act of saying the opposite of what you mean if we respond based on what is said we will actually be reacting in the opposite way of what is wanted by the other. It would be great if everyone was direct (polite but direct) but unfortunately this is not always the case.

So how can we better pick up on sarcasm? It takes more energy and effort, but it can be worth it to respond effectively to others. There are a few main things we can look for to help identify the use of sarcasm. One is watching for facial expressions. Some key facial expressions used during sarcasm may include an eye roll, widening of the eyes, raised eyebrows, or a half or tight smile.

So, let’s play this out. Let’s say you ask someone if they want to clean your dishes for you and they respond “Oh ya, that’s exactly what I want to do”. If we are only paying attention to the words it would seem as if they want to do our dishes. Easy Peasy!… or at least that’s what we thought. Let’s take a closer look and combine what they are saying and how they are saying it. For this example, let’s pretend when they responded with, “Oh yeah, that’s exactly what I want to do,” then they rolled their eyes. Rolling one’s eyes is typically a sign of contempt or annoyance. We can take this clue of the eye roll to help us recognize that something is not quite right. How about we look at this with some other nonverbal cues. Instead of them rolling their eyes let’s pretend they brought their face back towards their body and moved their eyebrows and their tone of voice was high pitched.

Now let’s break this down and find the nonverbal cues. First cue was moving their face back towards their body. This is similar to someone being taken aback as if they cannot believe you just asked them that. Sort of like being astonished or confused. Second cue was their eyebrow movements. Eyebrow movements occur when we are exaggerating our facial expressions. These are signs of sarcasm because the person is exaggerating them to be noticed. Third cue was their tone of voice. When someone is being sarcastic they will often use a high-pitched voice. Just like when someone exaggerates their facial expressions they may exaggerate their voice to show something is not quite as it seems.

Here’s another one for us to try. Pretend you’re making plans with a friend and you suggest watching a movie. They then reply “Sure, it’s beautiful out so why wouldn’t we want to stay inside?”. Ask yourself if we break down this statement if there’s anything that does not match. When someone mentions it being beautiful outside they just gave the weather a compliment and this typically implies they would like to be out there. When someone mentions it being gross outside they may want to avoid being outside. So, in this statement they’ve mentioned how beautiful it is outside so likely they would like to be outside and not indoors. They’ve given one clue of sarcasm by having a statement with conflicting information (beautiful out & staying inside).

How about one more? You ask your boss if you can come in late on Monday. They respond “Sure, why not just come in whenever you want this week?” while they give out a laugh. How many signs are in this example that this was the use of sarcasm? One sign may be that they laughed out loud. Typically laughing is associated with something funny happening or a joke being told. Since you did not tell a joke and you did not see something funny happen the laughing out loud or “LOL” may be them implying they found it funny that you would ask. Often times people use laughing at a request to show they find the question itself funny.

There’s one more sign though related to congruency. Ask yourself if what they are saying is typical of their past behaviors. In this example your boss is telling you to come in whenever you want. Is your boss usually so lenient with your schedule or are they usually very structured? If the answer is incongruent with their statement, then that might be a clue they are being sarcastic.

While sarcasm can be difficult we can conquer it with the right tools. This article went into descriptions but now we can break it down into easy to remember bullet points.

Sarcasm Tools:

  • Look for nonverbal cues (eye rolls, tight or half smiles, exaggerated eyebrow movements)
  • Listen for tone (high pitches)
  • Inappropriate laughing
  • Look for conflicting information (beautiful weather outside but staying inside)
  • Look for incongruent statements (is what they’re saying typical or out of the ordinary)
  • Yes, it’s frustrating to have to work harder to understand others when they use sarcasm instead of them just being direct. But since it gets used pretty regularly it benefits us to better understand it in order to avoid responding in ways that may not be well received. Try watching some shows, movies, or videos online and see if you can spot any of the clues of sarcasm. Then take a moment to review the situation in which it was used. This will help with practice and understanding for when you come across someone in your life using sarcasm.