According to Haiman, dog-eat-dog sarcastic commentary is just part of our quest to be cool. “You’re distancing yourself, you’re making yourself superior,” Haiman says. “If you’re sincere all the time, you seem naive.”
Sarcasm is also a handy tool. Most of us go through life expecting things to turn out well, says Penny Pexman, a University of Calgary psychologist who has been studying sarcasm for more than 20 years. Otherwise, no one would plan an outdoor wedding. When things go sour, Pexman says, a sarcastic comment is a way to simultaneously express our expectation as well as our disappointment. When a downpour spoils a picnic and you quip, “We picked a fine day for this,” you’re saying both that you had hoped it would be sunny and you’re upset about the rain.
We’re more likely to use sarcasm with our friends than our enemies, Pexman says. “There does seem to be truth to the old adage that you tend to tease the ones you love,” she says.
But among strangers, sarcasm use soars if the conversation is via an anonymous computer chat room as opposed to face to face, according to a study by Jeffrey Hancock, a communications professor at Cornell University. This may be because it’s safer to risk some biting humor with someone you’re never going to meet. He also noted that conversations typed on a computer take more time than a face to face discussion. People may use that extra time to construct more complicated ironic statements.
Kids pick up the ability to detect sarcasm at a young age. Pexman and her colleagues in Calgary showed children short puppet shows in which one of the puppets made either a literal or a sarcastic statement. The children were asked to put a toy duck in a box if they thought the puppet was being nice. If they thought the puppet was being mean, they were supposed to put a toy shark in a box. Children as young as 5 were able to detect sarcastic statements quickly.
Pexman said she has encountered children as young as 4 who say, “smooth move, mom” at a parent’s mistake. And she says parents who report being sarcastic themselves have kids who are better at understanding sarcasm.
There appear to be regional variations in sarcasm. A study that compared college students from upstate New York with students from near Memphis, Tennessee, found that the Northerners were more likely 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: 56 percent of Northerners found sarcasm humorous while only 35 percent of Southerners did. The New Yorkers and male students from either location were more likely to describe themselves as sarcastic.
There isn’t just one way to be sarcastic or a single sarcastic tone of voice. In his book, Haiman lists more than two dozen ways that a speaker or a writer can indicate sarcasm with pitch, tone, volume, pauses, duration and punctuation. For example: “Excuse me” is sincere. “Excuuuuuse me” is sarcastic, meaning, “I’m not sorry.”
According to Haiman, a sarcastic version of “thank you” comes out as a nasal “thank yewww” because speaking the words in a derisive snort wrinkles up your nose into an expression of disgust. That creates a primitive signal of insincerity, Haiman says. The message: These words taste bad in my mouth and I don’t mean them.
In an experiment by Patricia Rockwell, a sarcasm expert at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, observers watched the facial expressions of people making sarcastic statements. Expressions around the mouth, as opposed to the eyes or eyebrows, were most often cited as a clue to a sarcastic statement.
The eyes may also be a giveaway. Researchers from California Polytechnic University found that test subjects who were asked to make sarcastic statements were less likely to look the listener in the eye. The researchers suggest that lack of eye contact is a signal to the listener: “This statement is a lie.”