jump to navigation

Are You Serious? November 18, 2011

Posted by nrhatch in Health & Wellness, Humor, Mindfulness, People.

How’s your Sarcasm Detector?

Are you able to detect statements dripping with sarcasm?  Or do they fly under your radar?

Do you accept everything people say “literally” . . . or do you use your creative problem solving skills to look for clues to sarcasm’s subtle deception?

According to a recent article in Smithsonian.com, “researchers from linguists to psychologists to neurologists have been studying our ability to perceive snarky remarks and gaining new insights into how the mind works.” 

From The Science of Sarcasm? Yeah, Right:

* Studies have shown that exposure to sarcasm enhances creative problem solving.  Children understand and use sarcasm by the time they get to kindergarten. An inability to understand sarcasm may be an early warning sign of brain disease.

* Sarcasm seems to exercise the brain more than sincere statements do. Scientists who have monitored the electrical activity of the brains of test subjects exposed to sarcastic statements have found that brains have to work harder to understand sarcasm.

* While the left hemisphere of the brain seems to be responsible for interpreting literal statements, the right hemisphere and both frontal lobes seem to be involved in figuring out when the literal statement is intended to mean exactly the opposite, according to a study by researchers at the University of Haifa.

* The mental gymnastics needed to perceive sarcasm includes developing a “theory of mind” to see beyond the literal meaning of the words and understand that the speaker may be thinking of something entirely different. A theory of mind allows you to realize that when your brother says “nice job” when you spill the milk, he means just the opposite, the jerk.

* Sarcastic statements are sort of a true lie. You’re saying something you don’t literally mean, and the communication works as intended only if your listener gets that you’re insincere. Sarcasm has a two-faced quality: it’s both funny and mean. This dual nature has led to contradictory theories on why we use it.

To read more:   The Science of Sarcasm? Yeah, Right.

How often do you rely on sarcasm in your daily encounters?  Do you reach for sarcasm more often in interactions with friends?  Or strangers?

Have you noticed any regional differences in how people interpret sarcasm? 

Related post:  A Touch of Sarcasm


1. LittleMissVix - November 18, 2011

I’m a brit so I have pretty good sarcasm radar 🙂

nrhatch - November 18, 2011

I’ve noticed that, Vix. With you and others from your “neck of the woods.”

Tilly Bud - November 19, 2011

They add it to the tea they spoon feed us in the womb.

nrhatch - November 19, 2011

Are you serious? 😉

I thought the satirical and sarcastic Wit of the Brit was developed from watching Monty Python.

{{wink wink, nudge nudge}}

2. Maggie - November 18, 2011

I use sarcasm all the time. It can be quite amusing if used with the right people.

nrhatch - November 18, 2011

Same here . . . and I agree. Sarcasm tickles my funny bone chakra. But it adds complexity to our communication with more literal types. 😉

3. lifeintheboomerlane - November 18, 2011

Ah, sarcasm. I’ve lived with it all my life. I ooze it from my pores and lap up the sarcasm flowing from the pores of others. I just have to be careful because sometimes, I talk to people who take everything literally, and they tend to do things like calling the police. It’s not fun.

nrhatch - November 18, 2011

I love your sarcasm . . . even when you are unwilling to share your M&M’s with me! 😆

4. Andra Watkins - November 18, 2011

I am married to one of the most clever sarcastic men on the planet. And, you’re right. It works my brain differently. It was one of the first things I noticed about him, and probably what hooked me. 🙂

nrhatch - November 18, 2011

That’s a key combo ~ clever AND sarcastic. It’s witty sarcasm I love . . . not witless snarkiness. 😀

5. Piglet in Portugal - November 18, 2011

I would never use sarcasm on people I’ve just met. With my friends I am not exactly sarcastic, but have a tongue-in-cheek dry humour or banter as we say. I think this sometimes carries through on to my blog. Not sure.

I would never make sarcastic comments to be unkind though. If someone said something really cutting to me or one of my friends maybe I would respond – but then not all comments, if any, are worthy of a response. It depends on what has been said. Mostly I just walk away and rise above it because I have a tongue like a razor once I start LOL :). You can tell I’m debating this as I write!

I say to my friends would you like to go for a twaddle. Thats piglet’s lingo for walking, waddling and talking. We are all overweight and talk a lot as we walk for exercise.

nrhatch - November 18, 2011

I would love to go for a twaddle with you! I don’t like “mean sarcasm” . . . but I love clever jesting and ripostes.

6. Piglet in Portugal - November 18, 2011

Whoops meant to say…I don’t admire sarcastic people. There is a difference between wit and sarcasm

nrhatch - November 18, 2011

Witty sarcastic comments tickle my funny bone chakra.

Mean and nasty comments (sarcastic and overwise) do not earn my respect and admiration.

7. suzicate - November 18, 2011

I’ve been snarky forever. The worst thing is when someone doesn’t get it and looks at you like you are evil…has made me careful of when and where I use sarcasm, though sometimes I still can’t help myself.

nrhatch - November 18, 2011

I expect that’s why research shows that people are more inclined to be sarcastic with the ones they love and know best rather than with perfect strangers.

It’s a form of “intimacy” . . . “I know you, you get me, and I trust that you will get this!” 😉

8. The Skinny Jeans and Starbucks Chronicles - November 18, 2011

Finally! Proof that sarcasm is not necessarily the lowest form of humor. And if it is, at least its good for the brain.

My humor tends to gravitate between sarcasm, dry and deadpan. These either work incredibly well when meeting new people or results in something utterly disasterous. Either way, it hasn’t stopped me from practicing sarcasm.

Cheers from Toronto!

nrhatch - November 18, 2011

It IS good for the brain. I tend to be straightforward with young kids and aging adults . . . and also with those who are missing a funny bone. 😆

With everyone else . . . I play it by ear.

9. Lisa Wields Words - November 18, 2011

I tend to be more sarcastic with people that I know well and reserve my sarcasm until people know me better. I’ve put my foot in it one too many times when my snarky remarks were taken incorrectly.

nrhatch - November 18, 2011

Yup. Yup. And yup. When people assume (incorrectly) that we are always “dead serious” . . . they get annoyed when we offer up frivolous tongue-in-cheek humor that flies under (or over) their sarcasm detector.

I know that there are times when I’m 90% sure that someone is being sarcastic . . . but there’s still that lingering doubt. I usually smile and say, “Seriously?”

If I’m still not sure, I change the subject. 😀

10. Tori Nelson - November 18, 2011

I am sarcastic to no end, so I have a habit of assuming most people are sarcastic, too. This is all fine and dandy until I “Haha!” or “LOL” in response to a serious post that I thought was a joke!

nrhatch - November 18, 2011

Yes! I’m pretty good at recognizing sarcasm in person with body language and voice inflection to help me out, but in the blogosphere both of those aids to communication are missing.

With some writers, the sarcasm is so “polished” it’s impossible to miss . . . *wink, wink, nudge, nudge.” With others, it’s sometimes hard to know if I’m laughing when they’re dead serious or I’m dead serious when they are laughing.

Wen in doubt . . . be non-commital. “Gotcha!” or “HUA!” 😆

11. kateshrewsday - November 18, 2011

Really interesting post, Nancy. My life, with the kids I teach and my daughter too, is all about taking the layers off sarcasm so that people with Asperger’s and Autism can understand them.

It’s a fascinating exercise because it forces one to analyse what’s really going on beneath the surface of what we say when we are sarcastic. This can include unmasking motives which are the product of the speaker’s low self esteem, especially when it happens in the playground.

Irony, now, I feel very at home with that. 🙂

nrhatch - November 18, 2011

Did I tell you about the movie Temple Grandin? It’s a true story about a high functioning autistic woman who attained a Ph.D. in animal husbandry. Definitely worth a watch.

In the movie, Temple demonstrates how she takes everything literally and at face value. It definitely helped me to understand how difficult it is for someone like that to process sarcasm or other teasing remarks.

This article talks about the difficulty that people with Autism have when faced with sarcasm.

12. sufilight - November 18, 2011

Nancy, it’s interesting, yesterday a psychiatrist who is very spiritually aware wrote a post in Facebook offering his book for $2,000 plus, with a sarcastic comment and one of his Facebook friends totally believed him and said she was not stupid. LOL. I was kinda wondering why she believed him, and here you are explaining how the brain works in interpreting remarks. It’s good to understand.

nrhatch - November 18, 2011

I found the article on sarcasm interesting. Some people are more adept at looking past the literal meaning to the underlying intent of the message.

Others tend to take comments at face value . . . even outrageous comments offering a book for sale for $2,000. 😉

Maybe it’s because we’re so used to seeing the price tags for diamond rings and other “gaudy wear” flashing on the TV screen . . . ONLY $13,500! And you’re worth it!

A book with real wisdom should be worth at least $2,000, right?

13. Carl D'Agostino - November 18, 2011

Dear Mr. D’Agostino: We have read the manuscript you submitted. Perhaps you may explore trying other things related to writing. Like working in a paper mill or pencil factory.

nrhatch - November 18, 2011

OUCH! I’ve read some pretty funny rejection letters, but that’s just MEAN. 😦

14. cuhome - November 18, 2011

I do use sarcasm, but I’m a bit more careful with it than I used to be. I realized that not everyone “gets” it, and it can be hurtful. It’s also something that people use, intentionally, to get in a dig; because everyone is laughing at the surface of the statement, the person it’s intended to hurt would look ridiculous if s/he objected. And that’s often what’s intended. Lots of abusive relationships rely on this type of “communication”; the victim is trapped. The abuser can always say, “Ah, c’mon Honey. I was just kidding!” But s/he wasn’t. So, yes, I use it, but very carefully.

nrhatch - November 18, 2011

Very good points. Sarcasm can be a nasty sword, indeed . . . as can any joke made at someone else’s expense.

I tend to use it to make FUN of myself . . . or of ridiculous advertisements that insist everyone would be happier with a Wicky Widget (or two) for Christmas.

BFF and I just toss the barbs back and forth . . . Oh, LOOK! That’s JUST what I want in my stocking.

15. Team Oyeniyi - November 18, 2011

I dislike sarcasm intensely. We have a saying that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. I think there are most definitely regional differences.

I know it is used widely in the USA and I am not surprised the Smithsonian has done a study on it.

Give me irony or facetiousness any day.

The derivation of the word sarcasm come from the Greek sarkasmos, from sarkazein: “to tear flesh like dogs”.

I am comfortable that I can remain confident in my intelligence, despite the Smithsonian’s findings, without resorting to “speaking bitterly”. 🙂

nrhatch - November 18, 2011

I think it depends how it’s used. BFF and I tend to use sarcasm profusely around the holidays to make fun of all the slick advertisements trying to get us to BUY MORE STUFF! 😆

Nope. Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.

16. Team Oyeniyi - November 18, 2011

“Oh, LOOK! That’s JUST what I want in my stocking.” Now, we would classify that as facetiousness, not sarcasm! 😆

Team Oyeniyi - November 18, 2011

*sigh* – it was meant to be a reply to your reply and clearly I clicked ont he wrong reply linky thing. MORE COFFEE!!!!

nrhatch - November 18, 2011

I see what you mean. I expect that the line between the two crosses from time to time.

Enjoy your coffee! 😀

17. souldipper - November 18, 2011

Sarcasm has a negative motive or tone. As Kate pointed out, low self esteem is often at the root of it. Teachers on the playground used to tell us that heroes speak up about what they are feeling. Cowards use sarcasm.

My mother-the-teacher use to tell my siblings and me that it was a form of laziness. She’d say, “You know enough words in the English language to be effectively descriptive without being sarcastic.”

The kind of remarks you share with BFF sound like innuendo or facetiousness.

Whereas, the Dictionary (Internet) says:
1. harsh or bitter derision or irony.
2. a sharply ironical taunt; sneering or cutting remark

Pretty hard to do without cutting someone to the quick. I like dry wit and clever humour!

nrhatch - November 18, 2011

The examples of sarcasm given in the article (for example, the brother saying “nice job” in response to spilled milk, or the mother addressing an untidy room with a quick quip) sound like the kind of comments BFF and I make to one another.

Actually, it sounds like the research addressed sarcasm, irony, and facetiousness as a “lump entity” under the sarcasm umbrella . . . because none of the examples they gave involved cutting anyone to the quick. Some of them weren’t even addressed at other people ~ one example was a couple commenting on a rainy day by saying, “We sure picked a great day for this.” “D

cuhome - November 18, 2011

I’d be interested in looking at some other studies, as this one seems to “lump”, as you said, sarcasm, irony and facetiousness, as one entity. There are differences between the three. Sarcasm carries a strong thread of anger within it. I agree that it requires an ability to think in abstract terms. There may be some strong cultural differences, as well, in the way sarcasm is perceived and used. I’ve heard it used as veiled threat. Sometimes in circumstances where a criticism is possibly even justified, it becomes a personal attack because of the presentation. It can absolve all responsibility from the critical person, turning the criticism into a “joke”. There are so many different ways it can be used, you’d almost need sub-categories of sarcasm to do research on this. The dynamics between the people involved would make a difference, as well.

nrhatch - November 18, 2011

I expect, like much of the English language, that what people refer to as sarcasm varies from person to person ~ especially since the article discusses the regional differences in how it is perceived.

Where I grew up, it was often used to lighten a mood or tense moment or to share a smile. For example, when my sister married, the groom’s brother collapsed during the ceremony. To lessen his obvious embarrassment, I said, “That’s just great. Now, they aren’t legally married!” . . . meaning just the opposite, “No harm done.”

He got it, laughed, and realized that life would go on.

18. Booksphotographsandartwork - November 18, 2011

My grandson is just starting to understand and use sarcasm and it’s very funny. My husband uses it a little more than I would like.

nrhatch - November 19, 2011

Watching wee ones learns to communicate is FUN . . . especially when they are “pulling our legs.”

I’ve been around people who ALWAYS say the opposite of what they mean . . . without any clues (other than past practice). It gets a bit tiring to translate after a time.

19. Alannah Murphy - November 19, 2011

Tilly and LittleMissVix are right. In the UK, we all have super powerful sarcasm and irony detectors. It’s most amusing as we can sometimes leave others scratching their heads…

nrhatch - November 19, 2011

Long live the Wit of the Brit! 😀

20. SidevieW - November 19, 2011

it is a double edged sword. used between ‘understanding adults’ it can be fun, but it often masks so much and that usually needs to be looked into carefully

nrhatch - November 19, 2011

Yup. It depends who’s wielding the words.

21. Julie - November 20, 2011

Being very sarcastic myself, and coming from a long line of the most heavy sarcasm-users ever, I am very proficient at decoding it. Sometimes, sarcasm is meanness disguised as a joke.

nrhatch - November 20, 2011

Same here ~ interacting with my brothers would be strange without sarcasm entering the mix. We don’t usually use it in a mean way . . . but many do.

Hope you’re having fun in VA!

22. CMSmith - November 20, 2011

That’s interesting. I love reading stuff about the brain.

I think sarcasm is more difficult to pick up in digital communication, and with someone you are not that familiar with.

nrhatch - November 20, 2011

I agree completely. Body language and voice inflection (especially in those we know well) make sarcasm much easier to recognize.

23. jannatwrites - November 20, 2011

I am a sarcastic person, but I use it most often to make fun of myself. When I waitressed, there were some customers that begged for a sarcastic remark, so in those cases, I delivered it with a smile or a wink and they often laughed, too.

Sarcasm is a bit more difficult in writing, though because the readers are often strangers and have a varied background…and they have no idea what is wrong with me 🙂

I think my natural (inherited) sarcastic streak has something to do with my obsession with emoticons. It’s my way of letting the serious ones know that I am not one of them 😉 (See?)

nrhatch - November 20, 2011

Gotcha! 😉

24. Perfecting Motherhood - November 21, 2011

I love sarcasm when it’s real sarcasm. As you state, it should be both mean and funny. When it comes across as just mean, then it’s not sarcasm, just meanness. Many people think they are good at sarcasm but they miss the whole fun part. That’s one of my pet peeves.

nrhatch - November 21, 2011

Great point. Likewise, many people think they’re good at living life . . . but they miss the whole fun part! 😉

25. eof737 - November 21, 2011

Oddly, I was more sarcastic in my teen years…. Not so much now. I just don’t feel that caustic edge coming on when someone says something annoying… Time does change us. 🙂

nrhatch - November 21, 2011

Oh, I was way more sarcastic in my teens. And my sarcasm had an entirely different quality to it ~ especially when I was talking back to my parents about some perceived injustice. 😉

26. Statement of the Century | Spirit Lights The Way - May 31, 2014

[…] Related post:  Are You Serious? […]

Sorry comments are closed for this entry

%d bloggers like this: