Sarcasm is when people say something very different (often the opposite) of what they really mean without intending to deceive (e.g., saying “Whoop-de-doo – I’m so happy,” when they’re very unhappy, or “I’m a genius” when they think they’ve done something stupid). (Literary critics differentiate between sarcasm and irony (being ironic), but for our purposes, there isn’t a practical difference in conversation.)
Some people are more sarcastic than others, as a matter of personality, but sarcasm is very common in general. If you can’t recognize or interpret it, you are at a significant disadvantage; even if you understand that the person didn’t believe the actual words they used, you may be taking offense where none is intended, or assuming someone is joking in a friendly way when in fact they’re being somewhat hostile. We don’t recommend that you incorporate sarcasm into your own speech, because there are considerable risks involved, especially for someone who might miss signs that you’ve made others uncomfortable, but we do urge you to work on recognizing, interpreting and responding to it.
Features of Sarcasm
Sarcastic Tone of Voice
The sarcastic tone of voice is so conventional that most people can instantly recognize it, even though they can’t describe it to you. Typically, it involves:
- lower pitch than normal for that speaker,
- extra stress/emphasis (which will elongate some vowels),
- longer duration of utterance (due to the elongations resulting from added stress),
- but slightly reduced volume. (Muttered sarcastic comments are quite common.)
- Sighing while being sarcastic is not uncommon.
Compare the first audio clip (not sarcastic)with the second (the same speaker being sarcastic):
For more examples, do the exercises!
A speaker may not use a sarcastic tone when being sarcastic with family and friends, because they know each other well enough – they do not require the additional vocal cues to pick up on the fact that the speaker does not believe the literal meaning of the words. In that case, the speaker is often referred to as “dry.” When speaking on the telephone, in which case visual clues are not available, a speaker might rely more on the sarcastic tone to be sure that listener correctly interprets the remarks.
Sarcastic Facial Expressions, Eye Rolls, and Postures
Here are some examples of faces that friends of ours made when speaking sarcastically. (These are captured stills from videos in which they were speaking.)
While the open-mouthed eye roll was an especially common (and obvious) visual clue, it was not universal. The young woman with the owl pendant and earrings pursed her lips and pinched her eyebrows (a pouting expression classically described as a “moue”) instead and maintained very direct gaze as if challenging us to believe her words.
Hyperbole in Sarcasm
Sarcasm in Writing
Polite (!) Uses of Sarcasm
Sarcasm can be amusing. As with any form of humor, speakers may use this as a way of underlining solidarity with the people they’re speaking to (a positive politeness strategy). The message this sends is “you know me well enough to know I don’t really believe these words (so we’re both reminded that we’re close), I believe we share a similar sense of humor (so we’re alike), and I wish to amuse you (so you know I care about you).” It may just be a quick, muttered “yeah, right” (to mean “not at all”) – but look at all the positive social messages that can be packed into those two words!
If a sarcastic comment appears to express frustration with a situation rather than with you, personally, it is likely intended to be friendly: the speaker expects you to share their frustration with the situation, and this “shared gripe” is common ground, showing that you’re in this situation together.
It is a risky strategy to be sarcastic with someone you don’t know well, as it can be misinterpreted as hostile. Once you have established a habit of being sarcastic-in-a-friendly-way with a particular friend, however, using sarcasm with that person underlines the specialness of your relationship. In those cases, even sarcasm that might seem hostile to an outside observer may be interpreted within the relationship as friendly teasing.
More Aggressive Uses of Sarcasm
Sarcasm frequently expresses frustration on the part of the speaker, and it can be used to actually aggravate rather than minimize face-threats. If the frustration is directed towards the hearer, it appears to push him or her away. (For this reason, the sarcastic tone is sometimes referred to as biting, cutting, sharp, stinging, caustic, scathing, having an edge, etc.). It can imply “I shouldn’t even have to tell you this – you should know it already” and thus be used to insult the intelligence or common sense of the person spoken to.
Using Sarcasm in an Argument
If you just want to win an argument and you don’t care about the other person’s feelings, you can respond to what they’ve said sarcastically (e.g., “Suuuure. THAT makes sense!”, “Yeah, and I’M the Queen of England”). This not only shows strong disagreement, it implies that you thought what they said was stupid (as ridiculous as me being the Queen of England). This may discourage them from continuing the argument – not because they think you’re right, but because they no longer wish to interact with you. (This is typically when someone might mutter “Whatever.” That can indicate that I really don’t care what the answer is – but often, it means that the argument isn’t worth my time, that I don’t care enough about you to try to convince you.)
Be advised, however, that your use of sarcasm in this instance may not make the other person back down, but may instead result in escalation of hostility in the argument: Because you are not taking care with their feelings, they will no longer try to protect yours. This can get very ugly. You may win the argument (or not) but also do lasting damage to the relationship. (See more about angry arguments in the turn-taking module.)
Using Sarcasm to Insult
Saying sincerely “You’re an idiot” or “You’re stupid” would obviously be highly insulting. Saying sarcastically “You’re a GENius” is not much better, though people may use the “I was only joking” defense. But before you take offense, you might want to think about why someone is behaving this way. Someone may be using sarcasm to insult you to score points with other listeners, and doesn’t care about your feelings at all. For instance, the alpha male in a group may call out “Sweet ride!” to a total stranger driving an old, beat-up car. He doesn’t care if he hurts the stranger’s feelings — he’s just emphasizing to the other members of his group how “cool” he is (because he has the right to judge everyone else). Likewise, the popular middle-school girl who says to the unpopular girl “Ooh, I love your pants! Were they having a sale at Walmart?” is just trying to score points with her own crowd of friends — she doesn’t care if she hurts the feelings of the target. These cases are generally pretty easy to identify — typically, the speaker and the target of sarcasm do not have a relationship they care about protecting. If someone you do have a close relationship with is using sarcasm to insult you, it is likely that they are feeling somewhat frustrated with you. They may have been trying to communicate this earlier in more subtle ways, but if you failed to pick up on it, they may now be using sarcasm as a way to increase the intensity of their social signaling.
Using Sarcasm to Establish Power Differences
Like many other features of language, sarcasm can be used to reflect existing power differences or to challenge them. Someone in a position of power speaking “down” to someone with less power (boss to employee, teacher to pupil, parent to child) may speak however they like; the subordinate isn’t really in a position to complain about it. So if a more powerful person is sarcastic, but doesn’t accept sarcasm from you, they are subtly reminding you of your relative positions, reinforcing their relative power. On the other hand, a child who is snarky or sassy (talking back and being sarcastic) with a parent or teacher may be seen as challenging their authority. Ditto for an employee using sarcasm with the boss. The person in power may respond with annoyance (putting the subordinate back in his or her place) or may accept the sarcasm (by smiling, laughing, reciprocating, or just ignoring it without signs of annoyance), sending the signal that they are now speaking more as friends and equals. (It is possible to have close friendships despite very real power differences!)
Some phrases are used almost exclusively with a sarcastic interpretation: calling the hearer “Sherlock” or “Einstein” (or “smart stuff” or “wise guy” or “hot shot” or “Maestro”). “Duh!” is one of the most sarcastic words in the language: it agrees with what the previous speaker said (or responds ‘yes’ to a question), but inescapably carries the additional meaning that “that’s so obvious, you’re an idiot for thinking it even needed to be said.” (People may, of course, use this self-deprecatingly, to point out when they themselves have just said something inane.) If people in a close relationship say this routinely to each other, it can be interpreted as friendly teasing – otherwise, it is likely to be felt as hostile and insulting. (Even in a close relationship, feelings can be hurt if it is said with too much emphasis. When the word “whatever” is said as a stand-alone utterance, it is frequently given a sarcastic tone for emphasis. This generally signals that the speaker disagrees, but does not see any point in arguing, or simply does not care.
Responding to Sarcasm
If you’re not sure whether or not a speaker is being sarcastic….
If the sarcasm is self-directed…
If the sarcasm expresses frustration with a situation
If the sarcasm is directed towards you
If the sarcasm is directed towards you, it matters a great deal whether you interpret it as friendly or hostile. If you’re sure it’s intended in a friendly, not hostile way, don’t take offense. If you can’t give an honest smile, at least give a social (fake) smile, showing that although you didn’t appreciate the comment, you recognize the friendly intent behind it.
Even if the speaker seems to be expressing frustration with you, don’t be too quick to take offense. (This would tend to make the situation worse, to escalate hostilities.) Think about why the person may be frustrated with you. Have they been trying to send you some sort of social signal that you just weren’t getting? If you can’t figure it out on your own, ask! “I’m sorry, you seem to be getting frustrated with me, but I really don’t know what I did to bug you,” e.g. This will tend to defuse the situation — the speaker may even apologize for getting snippy with you.
- Bryant G.A., & J.E. Fox Tree (2005). Is there an ironic tone of voice? Language and Speech, 48, 257-277.
- Caucci, G.M., Kreuz, R.J., and Buder, E.H. (2008). An acoustic analysis of the sarcastic tone of voice. http://umdrive.memphis.edu/rkreuz/web/Psychonomics07.pdf
- Ducharme, Lori J. (1994). Sarcasm and Interactional Politics. Symbolic Interaction 17.1: 51-62.
- Haiman, John. (1998) Talk is cheap: sarcasm, alienation, and the evolution of language. Oxford University Press.
- Kreuz, R. J., & Roberts, R. M. (1995).Two cues for verbal irony: Hyperbole and the ironic tone of voice. Metaphor and Symbolic Activity, 10, 21-31.
- Rockwell, P. (2000). Lower, slower, louder: Vocal cues of sarcasm. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 29, 483-495.
- Toplak, Maggie & Albert N. Katz. (2002). On the Uses of Sarcastic Irony. Journal of Pragmatics 32: 1467-88.
- Elgin, Suzette Haden. (1993 ). The gentle art of verbal self-defense. Barnes & Nobles.
- “How Sarcasm Works.” HowStuffWorks.com http://people.howstuffworks.com/sarcasm.htm
- “Being sarcastic.” BBC Learning English. (with audio files & a quiz) http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/radio/specials/1210_how_to_converse/page13.shtml