SARCASM IN RELATIONSHIPS
P. Valerie Dauphin
P. Valerie Dauphin
Sarcasm – a mocking or ironic remark (American Heritage Dictionary)
Irony – the use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning (American
Sarcasm is a large component of social interaction and conversation. To demonstrate a sense of humor, people frequently use sarcasm as a means of “breaking the ice” during initial encounters with others. People also use sarcasm as a means of being comedic with groups of friends. They say something contrary to what they feel and/or believe for the purpose of being funny. Sarcasm, in these instances, seems harmless and playful. But is it really? Too much sarcasm is annoying and hurtful, but can even a minimal amount be too much? Why would people joke around by saying the absolute opposite of what they mean? Would not that cause unnecessary confusion and frustration? There are also people who say sarcasm should not even be used as a means of being funny because one can never be certain how serious the sarcastic person is. How does sarcasm affect inter- and cross-gender relationships? Do males make sarcastic remarks more than females or do both genders use this means of communication with the same frequency? Individuals have different experiences, but generally speaking, do both sexes experience sarcasm the same way?
Sarcasm is an indirect form of speech intentionally used to produce a particular dramatic effect on the listener (McDonald, 1999, p. 486). Researchers Maggie Toplak and Albert N. Katz make a similar statement in their article “On the Uses of Sarcastic Irony”: “It is reasonable to assume that pragmatic insincerity is employed by a speaker to have some effect on a listener that would differ from the direct presumably more sincere form, and, conversely, that listeners…would be aware of the effect intended by the speaker.” Similarly, in his book Talk is Cheap, John Haiman makes the following affirmation: “What is essential to sarcasm is that it is overt irony intentionally used by the speaker as a form of verbal aggression….” (20). Some people even consider sarcasm to be a male-dominated form of communication used mostly among peers (Noble, 1977).
Many people relate sarcasm to irony, but there is a big difference between the two. According to John Haiman, a person may use irony unintentionally and unconsciously (Haiman 20). Situations can also be ironic (20). However, sarcasm must be intentional and conscious (20). Whoever makes a sarcastic comment knows that they are saying something contrary to what they actually believe, or how they actually feel. In addition, situations cannot be sarcastic, whereas people can (20).
The subject of sarcasm is complex because many factors are involved. The following stimuli affect the presence, or degree, of sarcasm in everyday language: exaggeration, nature of the speaker, relationship of speaker to victim, severity of the criticism, and whether or not the criticism is being made in private or in front of an audience (Toplak, 2000, 1483). However, there is one basic factor regarding sarcasm: It is “a form of ironic speech commonly used to convey implicit criticism with a particular victim as its target” (McDonald, 1999, 486-87). Whether someone claims to be “just kidding” or whether that person’s intention is to express dismay, there is always a victim (when the object of the sarcastic comment is a person).
Negative sarcasm, where positively worded utterances convey negative attitudes, is used frequently in everyday language. For example, one may say “I love James; that jerk slammed the door in my face even though he saw me walking behind him.” James’ actions would normally not be loved by anyone. However, one may use the word “love” to express their disapproval of him and his actions. Once again, this is a play on words.
Sarcastic remarks, like this, are usually accompanied by exaggeration, and intensifiers may be used on the words that state the opposite of how one truly feels. For example, in the situation with James, one might put a vocal stress on the word love, resulting in “I looove James.” Lori Ducharme supports this statement in her article “Sarcasm and Interactional Politics”.
Sarcasm was recognized by the intonation of voice as well as by the physical gestures of the sarcaster….In a sarcastic statement, a speaker utters words which are directly opposite to his/her intended meaning, but a vocal emphasis on these words (often accompanied by facial gestures such as a smirk, shaking of the head, or rolling of the eyes) indicates that they are not to be interpreted literally.
Sarcasm has been found to be “morphologically simpler and more flexible to use than direct forms” (McDonald, 1999, 487). It tends to be a more efficient way of conveying emotion or thought. Some people also view sarcasm as a less aggressive form of stating what is truly on one’s mind (487). Sarcasm also gives the speaker an opportunity to be dramatic and use wordplay that is more interesting than straightforward remarks.
While sarcasm may be a polite version of criticism, it is a form of criticism that is usually accompanied by particular negative attitudes, such as disapproval, contempt, scorn, and ridicule (487). “Some have argued that an effect of ironic criticism is to dilute condemnation, relative to the more direct form….whereas others have demonstrated that sometimes ironic criticism is used for the complete opposite reason, namely to enhance condemnation” (Toplak, 2000). Whether a person’s intent will be to lessen or increase the impact of criticism is dependent on the perspective of the speaker. From the listener’s point of view, after a sarcastic remark has been made, a process of decoding and interpretation must take place in order to understand what has been said. There are different theories as to what the listener experiences after hearing a sarcastic remark.
Grice’s traditional model assumes that the listener hears the literal meaning of the statement, realizes that the meaning unexpectedly contrasts with known facts, and replaces the literal meaning with a nonliteral one, based on conversational inference (McDonald, 1999, 488). Basically, the listener is substituting definitions. One flaw with this model is that it does not take into account the speaker’s intent behind the sarcasm. For example, by saying ‘A lovely day for a picnic indeed’ (on a rainy day) “the speaker is not simply asserting that it is not a lovely day for a picnic, but may be deriding the listener’s judgment, blaming him for ruining the day, suggesting they should never have set out, and so on” (McDonald, 1999). According to the traditional model, the speaker could be ridiculing the listener and the listener would not even realize it because he/she would be using his/her own substitution to define the comment.
Toplak and Katz conducted a study to examine the reasons why people use sarcasm when being critical of others. Their aim was to see whether the reasons for using sarcasm varied from different points of view (Toplak, 2000, p.1470). They used eighty-eight undergraduates, twenty-four males and sixty-four females, from the University of Western Ontario. The students were given literature to read featuring sarcastic remarks and direct criticisms. The four points of view studied were that of the speaker, the listener, an incidental overhearer, and a control no-perspective individual. The results showed that relative to a direct criticism, the “person who utters an indirect, sarcastic statement is perceived as intending to be more offensive, verbally aggressive, anger-provoking, and mocking. The sarcastic message is also perceived as more insincere, humorous, impolite, non-instructional, and conveying a somewhat unclear message” (1470-71). The speaker was also seen as being smug. Basically, sarcasm was perceived negatively, as a means of verbal aggression. However, from the perspective of the speaker, the sarcasm was seen more positively than to the people in the other points of view (1474). This makes sense. It is no surprise that the speaker would view his comments as less caustic. He may believe that what he is saying is not as bad as others make it out to be.
A second study, with the same set-up, was performed; this time focusing on the relationships between speaker and listener (1476). Through active imagination, those who took the role of speaker thought sarcasm would have a negative effect on the relationship with the listener/victim (1479). When asked, those in the speaker and listener roles did not see the use of negative comments as indicatives of close relationships, whereas those in the spectator points of view thought negative comments indicated close relationships (1479). Maybe the spectators thought this way because they assumed that people would feel more comfortable making all kinds of remarks, negative and positive, to people they had close ties with. Maybe people in close relationships had reached a level where criticism is okay, and sometimes expected. From the perspectives of speaker and listener, maybe they felt the discomfort of using sarcasm and could not imagine people in close relationships using such a harsh way of expressing their opinions.
At the end of the studies, Toplak and Katz concluded that point of view is not a factor in the reasoning behind why a person uses sarcasm (1482). All points of view in the studies showed that the fundamental factor of sarcasm is this: “With speaker intent in mind [from all points of view] sarcasm is used as a means of verbal aggression; with victim’s reactions in mind, sarcasm is taken as a more severe form of criticism than found when criticism is directly expressed” (1482).
Reaction-time studies have been done to show how long it takes sarcastic and literal comments to be processed. Some studies have found that it takes longer for sarcastic comments to be processed as opposed to their literal counterparts (McDonald, 1999, 489). In addition, sarcastic remarks also require additional cognitive processing (500). The brain has to do more work in figuring out the metamessages. If a speaker wants to get a certain message across but uses sarcasm as the means to do it, there is always a possibility that the listener will not interpret the comment as the speaker intends. Yes, sarcasm may be a more interesting means of making a statement. It may be more dramatic and less boring, but it will be inefficient if the speaker’s desired reaction does not occur. Sarcasm will be inefficient if the listener acquires feelings of ill will even though the speaker’s intention was to be non-caustic and funny. Sarcasm will also be inefficient if the listener takes the remark humorously although the speaker intends it to be serious and derisive. If there is a great likelihood of misunderstanding and hurt feelings, making conversation exciting and interesting does not seem to be a good enough reason to make sarcastic comments. Direct comments, even though may result in hurt feelings, are straightforward and will hardly cause people to guess the speaker’s intentions for making the comment.
According to Lori Ducharme, sarcastic transactions may take six forms: social control, declaration of allegiance, establishing social solidarity and social distance, venting frustration, and humorous aggression (57). Social control: Sarcasm is used as a control mechanism to reprimand members of a particular group when inappropriate or undesired behavior is displayed (53). For example, saying “Great job” to a member of a baseball team who strikes out for the second time in a row. Declaration of allegiance: Sarcasm can be self-directed (55). A person reprimands him-/herself for unacceptable behavior. For example, telling oneself “You are such a genius” after realizing an error made on an exam. Solidarity and social distance: Sarcasm is directed at outsiders of a particular group, affirming the “you are not good enough to be part of our group” mentality (56). This sarcasm takes place when others do not fit a group’s expectations of what is acceptable. For example, a group of girls sitting at a table may comment on another girl that passes by saying, “She is the most beautiful creature on this planet. Just look at her zit-infested face.” Venting frustration: Sarcasm can express disapproval with a situation or object that does not uphold the standards of an individual (56). For example, saying “These are the best seats in the house” at a movie theater where one’s seat is at the back of the theatre behind someone wearing a top hat. Humorous aggression: Sarcasm can be used to be funny and expresses wit by stating the opposite of a fact or belief shared by group members (57). For example, by saying “Pat isn’t as smart as you all think he is, he’s only valedictorian because he bribed college students to do his work for him” may be someone’s attempt at joking about a valedictorian’s intelligence and ability to graduate at the head of his/her class. (Sarcasm under this category can be used to describe a person, event, situation, etc.).
Social control, social solidarity, and declaration of allegiance are politically motivated sarcastic remarks (59). Their purpose is functional: to maintain group boundaries of what is and is not acceptable behavior. Venting frustration and humorous aggression are expressive in nature (59). They may convey a sense of exasperation with a person or situation, but neither is concerned with defining group boundaries and adhering to acceptable behavior (59). It seems that people nowadays tend to use the expressive forms of sarcasm more than the political forms in conversation.
Having observed many conversations and social situations, it seems that many people view sarcasm as a type of humor, with nothing about the statement being serious or truthful. According to these people, sarcasm would be in a subcategory of humor. On the other hand, other people find sarcasm to be very serious, even if the implications are humorous. To these people, sarcasm is too vague and should not be used as a form of communication. There is too much room for misunderstanding and hurt feelings. According to Lori Ducharme,
Sarcasm and humor are two forms of problematic yet functional communication which have received the recent attention of sociologists….Some distinguish sarcasm and humor on the basis of their perceived positive and negative qualities…humor is affiliative, while sarcasm is often a source of estrangement…Others imply that sarcasm is…a subtype of humor, emphasizing their structural similarities: both sarcasm and humor are situationally and contextually oriented…both rely on shared sets of meanings between speaker and audience…and both make use of dual (and incompatible) interpretations of those shared meanings…. (52)
People have different views of sarcasm in relation to humor. There is no written code stating whether sarcasm is a positive or negative thing. However, one can make an assumption as to how sarcasm is generally perceived by studying contexts and the general public’s experiences with and beliefs on the matter.
A study was conducted on the University of Pennsylvania campus in order to gain insight on people’s experiences with and perspectives about sarcasm, particularly in male-female, male-male, and female-female relationships. Thirty people were surveyed, fifteen males and fifteen females. Most were freshmen residents of Hill College House. There were two parts to the study. The first part consisted of a 10-question survey about sarcasm and gender experiences. (See Appendix A). The second part of the study consisted of a role-play. (See Appendix B). The role-play was comprised of two characters, 1 and 2. Participants were asked to read the role of character 1, the victim. The survey conductor (me) read the part of character 2, the sarcastic person. Before reading their parts, the participants were asked to keep a mental note of character 2’s responses to character 1 and their own personal reactions. (The intent of character 2’s comments was for humorous purposes, not derision). After the role-play was performed, the participants were given a questionnaire to fill out regarding the role-play experience, along with other questions. (See Appendix C).
SARCASM SURVEY RESULTS
*Question 2. View of sarcasm.
Social control 1 0
Declaration of allegiance 0 0
Establishing social solidarity 0 0
Humorous aggression 0 6
Lighthearted humor 14 7
Question 3. Is sarcasm a negative thing?
Yes 0 4
No 11 6
It depends 4 5
* One male and two females selected two options because they felt their opinions could not best be expressed with one answer.
Males 9 6
Females 0 4
Both equal amounts 6 5
Question 5. Sarcasm can cause discord in:
Romantic relationships alone 2 0
Friendships alone 0 2
Both 12 13
Neither 1 0
Question 6. Sarcasm can end:
Romantic relationships alone 4 2
Friendships alone 1 1
Both 6 6
Neither 4 6
Question 7. Circle all that apply.(See Appendix A)
A 0 3
B 7 6
C 7 3
D 1 5
E 5 7
F 5 0
Most of the time 10 6
Rarely 4 9
** One male chose neither option because neither applied to him.
Question 9. Uses sarcasm more often with:
Same sex 3 2
Opposite sex 1 6
Equally with both sexes 11 7
Question 10a. Would make sarcastic remarks to older person.
Yes 9 6
No 6 9
Question 10b. Would make sarcastic remarks to younger person.
Yes 12 15
No 3 0
For the questionnaire section in the second part of the study, four females and seven males said they felt no discomfort/felt neutral as victim of sarcasm during the role-play. A majority of the females (9) and seven males felt mild discomfort. Two females and one male felt great discomfort/confused.
When asked how they would feel if they were to hear sarcastic remarks, like that of the role-play, for an extended period of time from a significant other, fourteen females and ten males said they would feel sad and concerned, while one female and five males said it would not affect them. No one said they would be happy to hear sarcastic remarks from a significant other. The majorities in both sexes were in agreement in this situation.
When asked how they would feel if they were to hear sarcastic remarks for an extended period of time from a good friend of the same sex, ten females and six males said they would feel sad and concerned; five females and eight males said it would not affect them; and zero females and one male said he/she would be happy to hear sarcastic remarks from a good friend.
When asked if sarcastic remarks had to come from someone close in order for it to have a negative effect (i.e. cause discomfort), fourteen females and twelve males said no it would not, while one female and three males said yes it would.
It is interesting to note that every male, except one, viewed sarcasm as lighthearted humor, whereas the females were divided on the issue. Males expressed more tolerance of this type of verbal aggression. It is also interesting to note that they did not view sarcasm as a form of aggression. Their approval is apparent in their responses to question 3 in the survey. None of them viewed sarcasm as a negative thing. Another interesting thing is while four females thought females make more sarcastic remarks than males, no male thought similarly. In addition, a majority of the males said they are sarcastic most of the time while a majority of the females said they are rarely sarcastic. These two findings support the statement that sarcasm is a male-dominated form of communication.
It is interesting to note that even though a majority of females viewed sarcasm as lighthearted humor and did not view it as a negative thing, more than half felt discomfort during the role play (even though the intention of the comments in the role play were for lighthearted humor) and said they would feel sad and concerned if they were to hear sarcastic remarks from friends and significant others for an extended period of time. It is also interesting to note that males generally said they would not be emotionally hurt by sarcasm and would not care if a good friend of the same sex made a sarcastic remark to them.
Sarcasm is a complex topic. The purpose of this study was not to define all the situations sarcasm arises nor come up with a formula as to when it is okay to be sarcastic. The purpose was to get a better understanding of what sarcasm is, how it is used, and its effects on gender relationships.
Celia Noble stated that sarcasm is a male-dominated speech form. Although the results of the study do not wholly prove it, they do support her statement. The results also suggest that sarcasm affects females more negatively, in some cases, than it does males. Females admit that they either would be or have been emotionally hurt to a greater extent by other females than males admit to having been emotionally hurt by other males. 67% of females also say that they would be sad and concerned if a good female friend made sarcastic remarks to them for an extended period of time. However, only 40% of males said they would be sad and concerned if a good male friend made sarcastic remarks to them. No female said she had never been affected negatively by sarcasm while one-third of the males said they had not. No male views sarcasm as a negative thing. Females, on the other hand, were more divisive on the issue. During the role-play, seven males admitted to feeling any type of discomfort while eleven females admitted to feeling discomfort. This, once again, shows that males and females, generally speaking, experience sarcasm differently. According to the study, females are slightly less tolerant of it and are negatively affected by it to a greater extent than males.
Despite these differences, both genders did generally agree on some aspects of the study. For example, a majority of both sexes agreed that sarcastic remarks would make them sad and concerned if told to them for an extended period of time by a significant other. Both also agreed that sarcastic remarks do not have to come from someone close in order for it to cause discomfort. Both also agreed, for the most part, that sarcasm can cause discord in both romantic relationships and friendships.
People must be careful with how they use sarcasm, especially males. The fact that most of the males view sarcasm as a subtype of humor suggests that they neglect the verbally aggressive nature of sarcasm. This would cause them to be ignorant of some people’s feelings, especially those of females. Since males generally use sarcasm more often and women tend to be more negatively effected by it, it is suggested that males either limit the amount of sarcastic remarks they make, or stop being sarcastic altogether. The thing with sarcasm is that there is too much room for misinterpretation. It is more time-consuming to decode than direct comments and one can never be 100% sure of what the sarcastic person means by his/her statement. Sarcasm is not a joke. Yes, it depends on the context and the relationship between individuals, among other factors, but it is rare that people take the time to think about whether all these factors suggest that the sarcasm will be taken effectively. Everyone will not stop being sarcastic; however, everyone can and should think about the implications and consequences of what they are about to say before they say it.
Ducharme, Lori J. “Sarcasm and Interactional Politics.” Symbolic Interaction 17.1
(1994) : 51-62.
Haiman, John. Talk is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation, and the Evolution of Language.
New York: Oxford UP, Inc., 1998.
McDonald, Skye. “Exploring the Process of Inference Generation in Sarcasm: A
Review of Normal and Clinical Studies.” Brain and Language 68 (1999) : 486-506.
Noble, Celia. “‘Weak Speak’: An Investigation of Sarcastic Slang.” The Nottingham
Linguistic Circular 6.2 (1977) : 21-28.
Toplak, Maggie and Albert N. Katz. “On the Uses of Sarcastic Irony.” Journal of
Pragmatics 32 (2000) : 1467-88.
Sarcasm – a mocking or ironic remark (American Heritage Dictionary)
Irony – the use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning
(“Sarcastic remarks” means ironic remarks made about and TO the person being spoken to).
1. Gender: Male or Female
2. Circle one.
I view sarcasm as a means of:
a. social control
b. declaration of allegiance (honesty)
c. establishing social solidarity and distance
d. venting frustration
e. lighthearted humor
f. humorous aggression
3. Do you view sarcasm as a negative thing? Briefly state why or why not.
4. Based on personal experience, who, in your opinion, makes more sarcastic remarks during conversation?
Males Females Both Make Equal Amounts
5. Sarcasm can cause discord in:
a. romantic relationships
c. both a and b
6. Sarcasm can end:
a. romantic relationships
c. both a and b
7. Circle all that apply.
8. Circle one.
9. Circle one.
10. Circle either yes or no.
a. Would you make sarcastic remarks when speaking to someone older than you (by
more than 5 years)?
b. Would you make sarcastic remarks when speaking to someone younger than you?
1: Guess what?
1: Remember that math test I was telling you about the other day?
2: Which one?
1: You know, the one I was stressing about all week.
2: Oh yeah, the one you couldn’t do if your life depended on it.
1: Umm. (2 second pause) Anyway, I got a 90 on the exam!
2: Wow, so you must be, like, the smartest person in the university now.
1: Well, I wouldn’t want to ---
2: You’re still an idiot. [PAUSE] Just kidding.
1. Gender: Male Female
2. How did you feel when the sarcastic remarks were made?
a. no discomfort/neutral
b. mild discomfort
c. great discomfort/confused
3. If you were to hear sarcastic remarks – where the person was mocking you or using sarcasm to describe an event or situation – for an extended period of time from a boyfriend/girlfriend how do you think you’d feel:
a. sad, concerned
b. would not affect me, wouldn’t care
4. If you were to hear sarcastic remarks – where the person was mocking you or using sarcasm to describe an event or situation – for an extended period of time from a good friend of the same sex how do you think you’d feel:
5. Do sarcastic remarks have to come from someone close to you in order for it to affect you negatively (i.e. cause discomfort)? Yes No
Question 2: This question on the survey portion of the survey asked how the individual views sarcasm. The following options were given: as a means of social control, declaration of allegiance, establishing social solidarity and distance, venting frustration, humorous aggression, and lighthearted humor. The first five options were taken from Ducharme’s article.
see appendix D.
Question 3: Three females said that sarcasm was indeed a negative thing, six said no, and six said “It depends.” One female gave the following explanation: “Depending on the context, it can be negative but often it’s humorous with an underlying disapproval.” Another person wrote, “It depends on the situation. Sometimes sarcasm can be used to mock someone. At other times, it could be used to inject humour into the conversation.” No male viewed sarcasm as a negative thing, eleven did not view it negatively, and four said “It depends.”
Question 4: A majority of females (six) said that males make more sarcastic remarks during conversation. Four said that females make more sarcastic comments and five said that both genders make an equal amount of sarcastic remarks. A majority of males (9) said that males make more sarcastic remarks, none said that females do, and six said both sexes make equal amounts of sarcastic remarks.
Question 5: When asked if sarcasm can cause discord in romantic relationships and/or friendships, thirteen said it can cause discord in both types of relationships while two said it can cause discord in friendships only. Two males said sarcasm can cause discord in romantic relationships alone, twelve said it can cause discord in both types of relationships, and one said it causes discord in neither relationship.
Question 6: When asked if sarcasm can end romantic relationships and/or friendships, two females said it can end romantic relationships only, one said it can end friendships only, six said it can end both types of relationships, and six said it can end neither romantic relationships nor friendships. So most females think that even though sarcasm can cause discord in both romantic relationships and friendships, only six felt that sarcasm was strong enough to end both relationships. Four males said sarcasm can end romantic relationships alone, one said it can end friendships, six said it can end both types of relationships, and four said it can end neither relationship.
Question 7: The survey then for people to circle all that applied of the following statements:
Three females and no males circled statement a, six females and seven males circled b, three females and seven males circled c, five females and one male circled d, seven females and five males circled e, and no female and five males circled f. Thus, a majority of the females surveyed would be and actually have been hurt more by a male making a sarcastic remark to and about them, as opposed to a female making the sarcastic remark. For the males, it is divided between b and c.
Question 8: Six females and ten males said they are sarcastic most of the time, while nine females and four males said they are rarely sarcastic. Of the six females who did not view sarcasm as a negative thing, four of them said they are sarcastic most of the time. Of the three females that viewed sarcasm as a negative thing, all of them said they are rarely sarcastic. Of the eleven males that did not view sarcastic as a negative thing, seven said they are sarcastic most of the time.
Question 9: Two females and three males said they use sarcasm more often with members of the same sex; six females and one male said they use it more often with members of the opposite sex; and seven females and eleven males said they use sarcasm an equal amount with both sexes.
Question 10: When asked if one would make sarcastic remarks when speaking to someone outside their peer group, six females and nine males said they would make sarcastic remarks to someone older than them (by more than five years); nine females and six males said they would not; and every female and twelve males said they would make sarcastic remarks to people younger than them, while three males said they would not make sarcastic remarks to younger people.
Not all sarcasm is meant to ridicule people. Banter is an example of positive sarcasm, otherwise known as teasing, or mocking someone gently. In this case, the use of a negatively worded utterance conveys praise (McDonald, 1999, 487). For example, “Jeff is the most selfish individual in the world; you can find him serving at soup kitchens on Saturday nights while his buddies are off dancing in nightclubs.” The fact that Jeff serves in soup kitchens when most people would be having fun is contrary to the attributes one would give a selfish person. In this case, the word selfish is used to draw attention to the fact that Jeff is the antithesis of a selfish person. The use of selfish is a play on words, something used for dramatic effect.