How Sarcasm Works

Members of Billionaires for Bush, a theatrical troup, mock the wealthy as they stand outside of the James A. Farley post office, where last-minute tax filing takes place.
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You walk outside to leave for work and discover that it's incredibly cold and rainy. Your next-door neighbor is leaving at the same time. "Great weather, huh?" you say. "Yes, wonderful!" he replies. You drive to work, and after parking your car, you begin crossing the street to get to your office building. Suddenly a car come­s out of nowhere and comes close to hitting you in the middle of the crosswalk. "Thanks a lot!" you yell. The driver rolls down his window and makes a rude gesture at you.



When you get inside and sit down at your desk, you notice that one of your co-workers is talking loudly on his phone. When he hangs up, you say, "I think you should talk a little bit louder next time -- the entire office didn't hear it." Your co-worker apologizes. Later that day, you're in the break room talking with other co-workers. One of them says that he's thinking of going to graduate school and then leaves the room. "Oh, I'm sure he'll do really well!" you say. Everyone laughs, because this co-worker is known for being on the flaky side.

What was really going on in each of these exchanges (other than the fact that you seem to be having a bad day)? The weather wasn't great. You really weren't grateful to the driver that nearly hit you, and you definitely didn't want your loud co-worker to get any louder. You didn't think that your other co-worker would do well in graduate school at all. You said the opposite of what you meant, and everyone that you spoke to knew it.

All of these instances were examples of sarcasm. In the first two examples, you used understatement to express your disgust and annoyance with the weather and the other driver. In the third, you made an indirect request of your co-worker. You really wanted to let him know that he was talking too loudly and needs to talk softly the next time he's on the phone, so you said the opposite to emphasize it. The last example is more subtle; on the surface, it seems like a nice thing to say. But your tone of voice showed that you were making fun of your co-worker instead. Sarcasm can be used in all kinds of ways -- it can express everything from anger to humor.

Sarcasm is an example of what some researchers call unplain speaking, ways of speaking in which what is said differs from what is meant. This category of language also includes forced politeness, ritual language, affectation and speaking in aphorisms. Some people consider sarcasm to be a cruder, "lower" form of irony, or simply a verbal form of irony. But sarcasm always hinges on the speaker; a person is sarcastic (a sarcast), but a situation is ironic. Sarcasm is not deceptive, although not everyone grasps the speaker's true intention.

In this article, we'll explore how people indicate that they intend to be sarcastic. We'll see how children learn sarcasm and find out how the brain processes it. Finally, we'll look at some examples of sarcasm in classic literature.



Understanding and Learning Sarcasm

Great weather, huh?
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Most of the time, when you say something sarcastic, the person that you're speaking to understands your intention. But how? Since they can't rely on the words for the message, listeners pick up on other cues. When we say something sarcastic, we often use a very specific tone of voice. Important elements of spoken sarcasm include intonation, or how you vary the pitch of your voice, and stress, or how you emphasize certain words.

When English speakers express sarcasm with the word "Thanks!", they often use a nasal tone. Some researchers say that this nasal tone shows a connection between sarcasm and extreme disgust, to the point where the speaker is "expelling something nauseating" and he or she wants to remove it not only from the mouth but also from the nose" [source: Haiman].


Sarcasts of all languages use what Haiman calls inverse pitch obtrusion. This occurs when the speaker pitches a stressed syllable lower than the other words in the sentence. Take our weather example from the last section:


Pitch: High

Great weather, huh?


Pitch: Low

Great weather, huh?

The pitch of the word "great" in this sentence changes depending on whether you're being sincere or sarcastic. A sarcast might also stress the word "great" heavily, to show that it's anything but great.

We also express sarcasm by elongating our words ("Well, excuuuuuse me!") or saying words that normally express excitement in a very flat or apathetic way, such as "Wow." or "Yay." Finally, we might express sarcasm by using a sing-song melody, such as in "sor-eeee!"

Even if you didn't pick up on any of these vocal cues, you might be able to tell when someone is being sarcastic by context. If you spend most of a conversation talking about how terrible your mother is at gift giving, and then end with "I just loved my birthday sweater," listeners will probably know that you didn't care for it at all. Finally, you can often tell a sarcast by his facial expression -- usually one of disgust, irritation or apathy.

Sarcasm exists in many languages other than English; in fact, speakers of many foreign languages even use the same types of indicators that we do in English. Haiman points to examples in Italian, German, Japanese and Mandarin.

So most adults can pick up on these cues to infer sarcasm, but what about children? Researchers disagree on exactly when children begin to infer sarcasm: Some believe that younger children mainly tell sarcasm by the context, while intonation comes into play with older children. Others believe the opposite.

A study of French-speaking children in 2005 showed that the younger children (age 5) understood sarcasm when the speaker used a sarcastic intonation, while the older children (over the age of 7) could tell sarcasm simply by the context [source: Laval]. When children don't successfully interpret a statement as sarcastic, they sometimes interpret it as a lie, especially when the only cue is contextual. As of yet, there is no one age when children understand sarcasm; in some studies, children as young as 3 years old could tell when someone was being sarcastic.

Some people, regardless of age, never understand sarcasm. Autistic people, for example, may have difficulty understanding sarcasm because they can't grasp the complex relationship between language, intention and context. Problems with understanding sarcasm may also have to do with lesions in the brain or brain damage.

A 2005 study in Neuropsychology concluded that three areas of the brain are responsible for our understanding of sarcasm: the language cortex in the left hemisphere, the frontal lobes and right hemisphere and the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex. When you hear a sarcastic statement, the language cortex understands its literal meaning. Then the frontal lobes and right hemisphere infer its context. Last, the right ventromedial prefontal cortex put the two together and interprets the statement as sarcasm.


Sarcasm in Literature

Marlon Brando as Mark Antony speaks to the Roman crowds during the funeral scene in "Julius Caesar" (1953).
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although there's no way of pinpointing the very first use of sarcasm, it has long been a staple in literature (along with irony and satire) as a source of humor or simply as a way to prove a point. Many Biblical scholars point to examples of sarcasm in the Bible. Ecclesiastes 11:9 reads "Rejoice, young man, during your childhood, and let your heart be pleasant during the days of young manhood. And follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes. Yet know that God will bring you to judgment for all these things" (New American Standard Version). Many Biblical scholars interpret this to mean "if you want to be judged by God, do whatever you want."

­William Shakespeare is well-known for his use of sarcasm. In the play "Julius Caesar," the character of Mark Antony gives a speech at the funeral of Caesar that begins, "Friends, countrymen, lend me your ears." In this speech, Mark Antony repeats the phrase "honorable man" several times speaking of Brutus, whose actions (murdering Caesar) have been anything but honorable. This repetition has the effect of completely inverting its literal meaning.


Writers use sarcasm to criticize everything from religion and government to philosophers and other writers. The 14th-century English author and poet Geoffrey Chaucer speaks of the Friar in "The Canterbury Tales" as a "wanton and merry" person who seduces women and accepts bribes. This is a sarcastic criticism of the clergy, who had become very corrupt.

Sarcasm was often employed by 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire. In his great satire "Candide," the titular character begins his journey by following the optimism of his teacher Master Pangloss, who believes that this world is "the best of all possible worlds." However, throughout the book Candide witnesses a myriad of tragic and terrible events. This illustrates Voltaire's sarcastic attitude towards the optimistic philosophers of his time.

Circa 1900: American writer and humorist Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835 - 1910), who wrote under the pseudonym Mark Twain­.
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Mark Twain was one of the greatest American sarcasts. He wrote his 1903 essay "Was the World Made for Man?" in response to Alfred Russell Wallace's promotion of the theory that the Earth is the center of the universe. Throughout most of the essay, Twain claims to agree with Wallace. But the essay ends by saying that just as the Earth was made for man, the Eiffel Tower must have been built for the skin of paint at its pinnacle, which demonstrates that Twain was being sarcastic when he initially agreed with Wallace.

When sarcasm is written instead of spoken, the reader must be able to tell from the context as there is no intonation to rely upon. This difficulty may be the origin of the axiom "sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence." Some writers have proposed the use of a sarcasm mark, an upside-down exclamation point at the end of a word or sentence to denote that it was intended to be taken as sarcastic. Sarcasm is often even less understood in online communication; ways of indicating sarcasm online include bolding the stressed word or phrase, putting it in quotation marks or even using faux tags like <sarcasm>thanks</sarcasm>.


Lots More Information

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