From shows like Friends and The Office, to late-night talk shows and the barrage of tweets and memes we scroll past every day, sarcasm seems to be everywhere in Western culture.
In fact, according to one linguist at Macalester College, it’s “practically the primary language” in modern society. By the time children start kindergarten, most have learned to identify sarcasm, if not use it themselves.
As they get older, those who don’t understand sarcasm are immediately noticed, as they’re almost never “in on the joke”—which is why being able to recognize and use sarcasm is essential to survival in a society dripping with irony.
What Is Sarcasm?
Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony, wherein the speaker usually says the opposite of what they actually mean. Many times, a key giveaway that a person is being sarcastic is the tone of their voice, or, the tone of their writing.
That tone is usually on the hostile side. After all, the word “sarcasm” comes from the Greek root sarkazein, which means “to tear flesh like dogs.”
Yes, it’s true sarcasm can involve biting words that are intended as not-so–subtle digs at the person on the receiving end. But not all dogs tear flesh; in fact, I’d say most of them are pretty cute. And sarcasm, too, can be kind of cute, or at least funny, particularly when it’s used as a form of self-deprecating humor or satire.
The trick to using sarcasm effectively is to understand your goal: Are you trying to playfully tease a friend or crush? Make an ironic joke about a politician? Or verbally take down a foe with your sharp tongue?
There’s a fine line between teasing and being plain mean, and because sarcasm can be used to do both, it’s important that you consider your relationship with your audience, as well as their own sense of humor so that your sarcasm has its intended effect.
What Is the Function of Sarcasm?
Oscar Wilde once wrote that sarcasm is “the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence.” That might be up for debate, but we can all agree that sarcasm, while often funny, can be risky.
If your words are lost on your target, then they can have unintended consequences: you can hurt the feelings of someone you love, or appear to compliment someone you were trying to insult! But if you know how to read the room (i.e., you know who you’re talking to and how they’ll interpret your words), then your mastery of sarcasm can become a valuable addition to your linguistic toolbox.
And you may actually benefit from a little snark now and then: research shows that using sarcasm in speech and writing leads to greater creativity… for both the giver and the receiver!
Not only does sarcasm spark creativity, but it can serve a number of other functions, depending on your intentions and how you use it.
For example, sarcasm can be used:
- As a form of criticism (a gentle jab, or a brutal condemnation)
- As a defense mechanism
- To thinly veil a scathing remark
- To poke fun at oneself
- To humorously convey disapproval
- To communicate an inside joke
To better understand why many of us choose to communicate with sarcasm, let’s take a look at the different types of this verbal irony.
Types and Examples of Sarcasm
Below are 7 common types of sarcasm, with examples you might find in everyday life.
Self-deprecating sarcasm is basically when you poke fun at yourself by overstating a sense of inferiority.
While regular self-deprecating comments can become an unhealthy habit and a negative reflection of your self-esteem, self-deprecating sarcasm actually signals confidence.
This type of humor is often used to signal humility. You know when and how to laugh at yourself, and that’s great! It’s also useful when you’re trying to relate and connect better to others, as it signals that you’re approachable and you don’t take yourself too seriously, which can help people open up to you more easily.
Example: I’m glad I had the genius idea of getting a car wash the one day it’s supposed to rain.
Brooding sarcasm is when the speaker says something that sounds polite, but they’re really complaining and say it with an irritated tone.
Example: I just can’t wait to work overtime on Christmas Eve.
Deadpan sarcasm is delivered in a completely serious tone, without any laughter or emotion. This can make it quite difficult for others to detect the sarcasm, and can leave them wondering for a few minutes if you’re hilarious or actually a psychopath. (This is my favorite type of sarcasm, but also the cause of many awkward moments.)
Boss: I’m sorry, but I’m going to need you to work on Memorial Day weekend.
Employee: I’m sorry, I can’t. The cult I joined last week is having a meeting. New members have to make a human sacrifice.
Polite sarcasm may be the sneakiest, most vicious of all: the speaker appears to have said something polite, but it’s only minutes later (or longer) that the recipient realizes that kind remark was actually sarcastic (kind of like a backhanded compliment).
Example: Wow, I really didn’t expect you to pass that exam. Good for you!!!
Obnoxious sarcasm is the least likely to make you any friends. It’s rarely very funny or clever; rather, it usually comes across as juvenile and annoying. Avoid this type of sarcasm unless you want to become known as the jerk of the office.
Example: I don’t need help with the ladies, I’m smoother than Casanova.
The person delivering this type of sarcasm looks, well, manic. Their tone is unnaturally happy and exuberant, but clearly they’re anything but.
Example: That’s GREAT!!!! I can’t WAIT to work overtime on Christmas Eve and spend even more time with all of YOU!*
Raging sarcasm relies mainly on exaggeration and often violent threats. Keep sharp objects away from the person delivering this type of sarcasm. Just in case.
Example: Working here with you on Memorial Day weekend? Well that sounds GREAT!! In fact, there’s nothing I’d rather do, except maybe POKE MY OWN EYES OUT!!!
How to Detect Sarcasm
If you’re trying to figure out whether or not a person is being sarcastic, your best bet is to examine the speaker’s (or writer’s) tone.
If their tone doesn’t seem to match their words (i.e., the literal words they’re saying sound nice, but their voice sounds annoyed or contemptuous), they’re probably being sarcastic. If you’re trying to detect sarcasm in writing, it helps to look at the larger context.
Look for references or comparisons made by the speaker. If you don’t understand the reference, look it up. For example, if someone says, “Your response was about as tempered as a Tea Party rally,” you’ll know they’re being sarcastic if you know that Tea Party rallies are famous for being pretty intense.
Know Your Audience
In addition to detecting sarcasm, it’s important to keep your own sarcasm in check. Always consider your audience before attempting this kind of humor, and make sure your goal aligns with your tone.
If your sarcasm goes right over your audience’s head, then it’s kind of pointless. Likewise, failing to read your audience well could end up really hurting someone’s feelings, even if your intention was to gently tease them. So choose your words carefully!
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