Are you planning on living or studying in a native country like the UK or USA? If you are, understanding humour can be a great way to make friends and build rapport with classmates, colleagues and clients. In this blog, I will be explaining sarcasm, which is one of the most commonly used forms of humour in Western culture, but one of the most difficult to understand for foreign learners.
What is sarcasm?
Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony. It is when we say the opposite of what we mean or the opposite of what is true. People use it non-verbally through gestures and facial expressions, such as clapping when somebody does something stupid. People most often do this for comedic effect. However, we can use sarcasm to criticise, ridicule, mock or disrespect people.
That’s why understanding sarcasm is important for foreign learners as it can provide clues into the type of relationship someone is trying to build with you. If they are using sarcasm to make you laugh, then it’s clear that they want to form a positive relationship with you. If they are using it negatively, this could indicate that they have a low opinion of you, you have done something to upset them, or that they are not the kind of person that you would want to develop a friendship with. Let’s discover the different ways that people use sarcasm and how to detect it in conversation.
Using sarcasm for comedic value (to be funny)
This is probably the most common reason why a native speaker would choose to use sarcasm. We see examples of this in many tv shows, movies and books. The most obvious way to detect when somebody is using sarcasm for humour is to check their facial expression. If they say something contradictory with a smile on their face, their facial expression is an attempt to show you that they are not being serious.
Alternatively, if they do not have a smile on their face and hold a straight facial expression, but you do not understand the sarcastic comment, they may then laugh or say, ‘I’m just kidding’. This shows that they were only trying to be funny and non-serious with you.
- You’re a clever one, aren’t you? (the speaker is trying to joke that you have said or done something silly. They may have a smile on their face to show that they are joking but in a light-hearted way. Their intonation would most likely rise and fall).
- Nice jeans. Did a dog attack you? (this is a commonly used sarcastic comment if you are wearing ripped jeans. By that, I mean jeans that are supposed to have rips in them for fashion purposes. The speaker uses a compliment than a negative comment to mock your jeans but in a funny and light-hearted way. They would probably have a straight face and varied intonation niiice JEANS! Did a dog attack you? The rising intonation on you indicates surprise and sarcasm. They may then laugh if you don’t get the joke.)
Using sarcasm to indicate that something has not gone the way you expected or planned
When things don’t go the way we planned, we can use sarcasm to express this. This could indicate that we are trying to make a joke out of a bad situation to make ourselves or others feel better. Alternatively, this could indicate our disappointment.
- Well, that went well… (after a bad meeting or a failed project)
- Well, that’s just great… (when something breaks or fails. The speaker may lower their intonation when saying the adjective to indicate sarcasm)
- Oh great! (or any other synonym for great like wonderful, good, brilliant)… (when you receive bad news or something bad happens. This is usually said with emphasis on the adjective, like oh GREAT. )
- Wow, what lovely weather. (this would be used when the weather is bad, and it would be said with a very flat, unenthusiastic intonation and a bemused facial expression to indicate your disappointment.)
Using sarcasm to criticise or ridicule somebody
This can be difficult sarcasm to detect, particularly if somebody is trying to subtly criticise you. The most obvious way to detect when somebody may be trying to subtly criticise you using sarcasm is if their facial expressions and body language don’t match up with what they are saying.
- You’re a really [insert positive adjective like reliable, nice, kind etc.] person, aren’t you? (the intonation may not rise as it would with a genuine question, they may deliver this more as a statement of fact, and their facial expression may be very straight with no smile and possibly a frown. This shows that they are unhappy with you and are trying to call you unreliable.)
- Ask James. He ALWAYS knows what to do (in this example, the speaker would be indicating that James thinks he is a ‘know it all’, or that James always does the wrong thing. The emphasis on the adverb always shows sarcasm)
- Wow, great job [clapping hands], no, really, you’re amazing (in this example, the speaker is trying to make somebody feel bad for doing something wrong. They are exaggerating by using the interjection ‘wow’ and clapping their hands to make someone feel small, stupid, or ashamed. If they really wanted to ridicule and hurt someone’s feelings, they could say this in a very loud voice and continue the clap for an unnecessarily long time.)
- Really? I had no idea! (In this comment, the speaker is trying to suggest that you are stating the obvious, and they could be doing this to ridicule you as if to suggest that you are stupid for stating the obvious.)
Using sarcasm to express anger/annoyance
Generally, the easiest way to detect when somebody is angry or annoyed with you is to listen to the words they say. If they say unkind or negative things, then it is clear to see that they are angry. However, sometimes they may want to demonstrate their anger using sarcasm, as this can be little somebody and make them feel insecure or embarrassed through the use of sarcasm.
- THANK YOU SOOO MUCH for that. You’re SUCH a helpful person. What would I do without you in my life, HUH? (the increased volume and emphasis on the words in this sentence shows that the speaker may be irritated or angry with you, especially if their facial expression does not look happy.)
- I love it when you disturb me. It’s the BEST (saying a positive verb (love) with a negative idea (being disturbed), showing that the speaker is unhappy and using sarcasm to express this, as they are using two conflicting ideas. Their face may also look noticeably angry)
- You’re so ******* clever(using swear words before a positive adjective can show that the speaker is being sarcastic in an aggressive way because, again, the message is conflicted, and swearwords as adjectives indicate anger)
So, from these examples, it is clear to see that we can use sarcasm for a variety of reasons and with varying intentions. As long as you pay close attention to the body language, intonation, volume and facial expressions of the speaker, as well as whether their message actually matches their delivery, you should be able to identify sarcasm.
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