Data On Sarcasm

Our capacities to communicate covertly, out of view of social reporting, are central to our abilities to coordinate to hypocritically pretend to support norms while actually evading them. Like laughter and eye-contact, sarcasm seems a central supporting skill. Here is some of what we know about sarcasm:

According to one study of a database of telephone conversations, 23 percent of the time that the phrase “yeah, right” was used, it was uttered sarcastically. Entire phrases have almost lost their literal meanings because they are so frequently said with a sneer. … Brains have to work harder to understand sarcasm. …

Lsten[ing] to complaints to a cellphone company’s customer service line, … students were better able to solve problems creatively when the complaints were sarcastic as opposed to just plain angry. … The mocking, smug, superior nature of sarcasm is [sometimes] perceived as more hurtful than a plain-spoken criticism. … “You’re distancing yourself, you’re making yourself superior,” Haiman says. “If you’re sincere all the time, you seem naive.” …

We’re more likely to use sarcasm with our friends than our enemies, … [New York students] were more likely [than Memphis students to suggest sarcastic jibes when asked to fill in the dialogue in a hypothetical conversation. Northerners also were more likely to think sarcasm was funny. …

Haiman lists more than two dozen ways that a speaker or a writer can indicate sarcasm with pitch, tone, volume, pauses, duration and punctuation. … Expressions around the mouth, as opposed to the eyes or eyebrows, were most often cited as a clue to a sarcastic statement. (more; HT David Brin)

Note that higher status and IQ cultures tend to use sarcasm more, just as smart folks tend to lie more, even though they are no better at discerning lies (source: Triver’s new book).

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  • PA

    “Northerners also were more likely to think sarcasm was funny. …”

    Hah! I knew it wasn’t just thought sarcasm isn’t actually inherently funny.

  • M

    Great post.

    • Doug S.

      My sarcasm detector seems to be broken.

  • I find it interesting that you say higher status cultures and IQ cultures tend to use sarcasm more. Do you think that extends to non-western cultures?

    I moved to Japan about 6 months ago for a job, and work in a professional environment for a large western company with many Japanese coworkers. A bit of common knowledge in the expat community here is that the Japanese don’t get sarcasm. In my experience I’ve generally found this to be true, even Japanese who I would consider to be fluent in English, have studied/lived abroad, and work with westerners tend to not only not pick up on the sarcasm but not even understand the point after several minutes of explanation.

    I believe that lack of sarcasm recognition is one reason Japanese often seem very naive to us westerners.

    I have only the most superficial knowledge of Japanese culture and language, but I can’t imagine another culture where saying things indirectly and picking up on subtle social cues and body language is more ingrained and necessary. There are several different concepts in Japanese, which I don’t think translate very well, regarding the differences between the face that’s presented and more inner truth, I think “tatemae” or kind of public face is the most well known. Unlike sarcasm, the explicit purpose for many of these concepts is to facilitate social cohesion.

    However, as far as I know none of these really reflect sarcasm as we know it. There’s an element of rudeness to sarcasm that doesn’t really seem to have a place in Japanese society.

    Again I’ve only been here 6months and never formally studied Japan, but sometimes I get the feeling that the Japanese sometimes think we are the naive ones missing all kinds of social cues and such. My interactions with my real estate agent in particular gave me this feeling. I think South Park may have done an episode on this actually.

    It would be nice to hear the opinion of someone who is really knowledgeable on the differences between the cultures.

  • ScienceFriction

    An algorithm that recognizes sarcasm in written texts (product reviews, twitter) is number 14 in the top 50 inventions of 2010 by Time magazine:,28804,2029497_2030615_2029717,00.html

  • Pole

    @Matt – Oh dear, maybe the Japanese have gone the route of your sarcastic disrecpect for certain behaviours and think it is unoptimal for the group to behave like that and actually think that one day some social disaster will happen to you, but don’t feel the urge to help a rude person like you to understand the social environment of the islands, instead they will milk you as long as possible for your other skills. In the best case they don’t know how to express in the Western sarcastic way of argument that they rule there and you can put your American multicultural tollerance status quo in the toilet.

  • Interesting, I have long observed that further north you go the more sarcasm people seem to use. I had a friend from Canada and he used sarcasm constantly.

    • IVV

      The Eskimos have 500 words for “really.”

  • lemmy caution

    In classical rhetoric, sarcasm is when you say something that you and your listener both know is wrong; irony is when you say something that you know is wrong but your listener doesn’t know is wrong. At least, sarcasm is more polite than irony.

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