No One Knows When You’re Being Sarcastic in Emails

People often think their sarcasm is obvious, while receivers aren’t always so quick to get the joke.

He might be making a joke no one will get. Image: Old Shoe Woman

Say you get this in an email: “I am so interested in coming to your cat themed bridal shower, Nancy.” Sarcasm? Not sarcasm? Turns out, it’s really hard to tell when someone’s being sincere in an email. The Discover blog NCBI ROFL pulled this gem of a study from the Journal of Personal Social Psychology.

The study showed that people think that they can communicate their tone by email far more successfully than they actually can. And that they probably think this on account of egocentrism. “Because e-mail communicators ‘hear’ a statement differently depending on whether they intend to be, say, sarcastic or funny, it can be difficult to appreciate that their electronic audience may not.”

They asked people to come up with two one-sentence emails about a topic. Here are two that appeared in the study:

I do not like first dates.

I really enjoy dating because I like feeling as self conscious and inadequate as possible.

Then they asked people to anticipate how a receiver would interpret their sentences. Finally, they had the receiver interpret the sentences as sarcastic, or not. People thought that 97% of their sarcastic sentences would be obvious to the other person. That was only true about 84% of the time.

Moral of the story: sarcasm is a lot like finding a mate — way better in person.


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