Future Tense

Scientists Have Figured Out How to Make Sarcasm Land in a Text. They’re Soooooo Smart.

So you’ve decided to be sarcastic in an email or text. Wow, great idea! There is exactly no chance that choice could go south on you. I mean, it’s not like the absence of nonverbal cues—a joking tone of voice, an eye-roll, a smile—could result in your reader taking you literally.

But you’ve made up your mind. Come what may, you refuse to deprive your friend or co-worker or podiatrist of your drollery. Now what? Are there particular things—punctuation things, emoji things—you can do to improve the likelihood that your sarcasm lands?  

This is obviously what science is for. As the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog reports, experimenters have just published a study assessing the “influence of textual devices (emoticons and punctuation marks) on the comprehension of … sarcastic versus literal criticism and praise.” Researcher Ruth Filik and her team presented almost 200 college students with suuuuperimaginative statements like “I found your talk interesting” and “I see the diet is going well.” The students’ task was to rate how sincere they believed each assertion to be.

What would be really dumb, right now, would be for me to back up and note that Filik’s study actually consisted of two experiments. In the first, participants were provided with context for the various written remarks, so that the intention behind them was totally opaque. (Sorry! That sarcasm was imperfectly executed. The contextual information made each statement not ambiguous at all. Researchers framed the diet comment, for example, with the note “Tanya had noticed that Jenny put on a lot of weight.”)

Some messages were accompanied by a winking emoticon or a sticking-out-its-tongue emoticon, some ended with ellipses, and some had periods. In this initial experiment, maybe because the (fictional) texter’s intentions were so obvious, I don’t know, none of the marks or pictures affected students’ perception of sarcasm.

But the following test wiped away all the context clues. “Your talk was boring,” Tanya told Jenny, and readers had to guess whether the lecture had riveted or anesthetized her. This time, a wink face greatly enhanced the chances that a line would be interpreted as sarcastic, while an ellipsis moved the needle a little bit, and a full-stop oozed sincerity. Also, the researchers discovered in this second experiment that emoji heightened sarcasm’s emotional impact: When the students identified both “Your talk was boring” and “Your talk was boring ;-)” as mercifully tongue-in-cheek, they rated the second compliment as more positive in tone. Likewise, “Your talk was interesting ;-)” stung worse than “Your talk was interesting” if readers pegged both messages as ironic negs.  

One more thing, because you clearly have all day. Filik found that the emotional impact of sarcasm itself differs fascinatingly from the emotional impact of emoji on sarcastic statements. To wit: As we’ve seen, a wink face intensifies whatever feeling—positive or negative—the sarcasm conveys, making praise gushier and scorn pricklier. But sarcasm as a whole, sarcasm qua rhetorical device, dulls the positive or negative emotion being expressed. Thus, students rated the frank assertion “Your talk was boring” more wounding than the sarcastic “Your talk was interesting …” And they hailed a heartfelt “Your talk was interesting” as kinder and more effusive than “Your talk was boring ;-).”

Now go have the best time tattooing your texts and emails with tonal nuance and never being misunderstood.