Nothing can annoy and engage people more than sarcasm. It engages because it requires a little more thought, instead of saying something directly you say the exact opposite and expect the other person to understand you don’t mean it. It annoys for the exact same reason. Luckily, there have been a few studies done on sarcasm, especially in the USA.
They had some interesting but expected finds, like sarcasm being helpful for creativity but only when you know each other well. This makes sense, when a friend is sarcastic to you it can help you think in a different way but its hard to solve a problem when you’re busy trying to figure out why a stranger is being mean to you, thats why prisoners rarely solve mathematical questions.
Or there was a Chicago study on how sarcasm is understood across different mediums, when it was spoken there was a 73% understanding that the other person was being sarcastic but in email format that number dropped to 56%. This goes a long way to explaining the negative reaction to a recent email I sent.
This is why sarcasm can be so divisive, its all fun and games but there is a definite air of snootiness to the whole thing. Smugly nudging each other as you make fun of something, it's almost like a grown up version of a 12 year old repeating anything you say in a high nasally voice. And unlike those instances the answer isn’t as simple as assaulting a minor.
Sarcasm encompasses everything from a witty satire of a Russian revolution through the eyes of animals to a kid tweeting “I haven’t done anything all day #winning”. Its this second type of lazy sarcasm that people can hate, its lazy and reductive comedy. Someone trying to sound smart when they’re actually not saying anything clever.
While writing this post I actually started finding a lot of articles from people who hated sarcasm, from this wikihow article on dealing with sarcasm to articles on why it is a negative hurtful thing to do. I don’t know why but I find so much joy in imagining someone sitting there genuinely trying to wrap their head around the idea. They just want to understand what everyone is talking about. Its actually very sweet. I'm glad the articles are quite detailed with their explanations.
Americans get a lot of grief about their understanding of sarcasm, its often seen as one of the big differences between “British” and “American” humour. While this definitely isn’t true, some Americans understand sarcasm very well, its also totally true considering that in the study I mentioned earlier, even when spoken you still had 26% of university students unable to detect sarcasm. This fact is surprising, considering how dry some of their leaders can be.
Its also surprising because some of the best examples of sarcasm and satire I grew up with were American shows. The Simpsons is renowned for this, the show is dripping in dry humour. There are too many clips to pick from so here is one that at least summarises why sarcasm can actually be confusing. Sometime you're not even sure yourself if you're joking or not.
Its the nuance of the sarcasm that is a little harder for Americans to understand, it can be difficult to understand that every word being said is a joke even as its being serious. The English style doesn't bother with obvious indicators, they expect you to understand that it's a joke even as they remain completely serious the entire time. I like to imagine that somewhere in England there is briton walking around in a successful job with a lovely wife and kids and the truth is deep down he is just completely taking the piss.
If you mention sarcasms beautiful offshoot, satire, then the next question will always be whether The Colbert Report is a great piece of satire or the greatest piece of satire. His original show was an amazing example of satire, American style. It was so successful he was invited by Republicans to give a speech in President Bush’s honour, if you haven’t seen it just watch and remember that they hired him because they thought he was genuinely conservative, which is both hilarious and horrifying. Colbert is a genius, simple as that, I can’t resist giving Colbert more than one link, so here is a rarer clip that also works as a brilliant example of sarcasm, when you use the words and attitudes of the person you are making fun of against them.
Sarcasm and satire are popular for a reason, they will always be around. Its just important to remember that you can get in a lot of trouble later if the person you’re speaking to doesn’t realise you weren’t being serious.