Sarcasm – a beautiful gift possessed by many – is sadly not understood by most people. Especially when conveyed textually. Chances are, it is completely lost on the individual it gets aimed at, and with the mediums of communication in this digital age, such as texting or emailing, it is hardly ever as apparent as it would be in case of face-to-face conversations.
So how to figure out if a person is being sarcastic to you? Linguist Robert Gibbs believes sarcasm includes 'words used to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning of a sentence.'
Writing for The Conversation, Sara Peters – who holds a degree in Experimental Psychology – compares it to a form of irony too. "In writing, the signal of sarcasm can be muddied."
She explains this with a simple example of a text-conversation between two friends about a pre-decided time for a meeting. A slight delay in one friend's schedule could lead to the other saying something like "I'm glad you were watching the clock today."
Sarah points out, "Was the friend being sarcastic or sincere? The later you are, the more upset they'll likely be, and the higher the probability their response is a sarcastic jab. But if your friend knows you're usually much later, they could be sincere."
Sarah says the first thing to look out for, is: "How well does the attitude the writer is conveying agree with the situation and the person?"
The real struggle is figuring out the underlying sarcasm or even a hint of it in texts. "Studying the use of email, researchers found writers who think they're being obviously sarcastic still confuse readers," shares Sarah.
"Sarcasm thrives in ambiguous situations – and that's the main issue. When delivered in person, sarcasm tends to assume a cutting, bitter tone. But written messages don't always get that attitude across or give you much else to go on. We still need more information."
How to spot sarcasm in texts?
Sarah says that a lot of previous studies on sarcasm have been conducted on spoken sarcasm per se – which has the added benefit of giving listeners some clues at least.
"When you have a conversation with someone face-to-face (or FaceTime-to-FaceTime) and they say something sarcastic, you'll see their facial expression, and they may look slightly bemused or tense," she says. "Equally or more helpful, the tone of their voice will likely change, too – they may sound more intense or draw out certain phrases."
But 'a lot of that information goes missing' in texts. "There are no facial cues, no vocal tones and maybe even a delayed response if a person can't text you back immediately."
It's even tougher to spot sarcasm in case of texts from people who you don't know that well, as even a history of their mannerisms isn't by your side.
In case you want to let the person know that you're being sarcastic, Sarah believes emojis can become your ally. "The digital age has developed some ways to mitigate some of the tortuous ambiguity," she says. "You can probably include an emoji to make it clearer to a reader something was meant sarcastically."
Sarah suggests that the person being sarcastic often bold or italicize words in emails to indicate sarcasm. "A study that included sarcastic tweets found that tweeters who include the hashtag #sarcasm tend to use more interjections (wow!) and positive wording for negative situations in their sarcastic tweets," she wrote.
Certain algorithms have been built to determine rudeness and sarcasm in tweets – for the purpose of user reviews – and while these were able to spot rudeness easily, sarcasm wasn't that easy, said Sarah.
"In other words, sarcasm's subtlety means that the algorithms require more specification in their coding – unless you #sarcasm, of course. With so many options to choose from, it's time to make sure that text you send at 2:30 a.m. really gets your point across."