Time and again, I’m reminded that there should be a sarcasm font readable on all tech devices. It could be the Helvetica or Times New Roman (no, not Comic Sans, please) for the snarkier of us and ensure that our written sarcastic cracks would be understood as such.
Because we’re all for people instantly understanding that we might be making fun of them.
Alas, though there are indeed a few sarcasm fonts out there, they’re not widely understood … or supported on many tech platforms. And that’s sad, because there are an awful lot of online comment and discussion boards that could use it to prevent a lot of misunderstandings.
A friend found himself in the middle of a slight kerfuffle last week after he posted a sarcastic comment on a board, which was misunderstood as being serious. Context, which was noted by another commenter, is an important element in sarcasm, and when it’s missing (which it frequently is in online interaction), it’s too easy to be taken as serious, especially among people who don’t know of the smartassery involved.
My eyes are already rolling.
In person, we also have facial expressions, body movements and vocal tone to clue us in to context; on the phone, it’s just the voice, but that’s still enough much of the time to let us know who’s just having us on. On the Internet, unless you’re on audio and/or video, no one can hear your snark (no, not the imaginary beast).
Sarcasm isn’t one-size-fits-all, and from some people it pretty much always sounds bitchy (but yeah, some of that “sarcasm” is just bitchiness, so tread carefully).
Richard Chin wrote on Smithsonian.com in 2011:
“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. Some language experts suggest sarcasm is used as a sort of gentler insult, a way to tone down criticism with indirectness and humor. ‘How do you keep this room so neat?’ a parent might say to a child, instead of ‘This room is a sty.’
“But other researchers have found that the mocking, smug, superior nature of sarcasm is perceived as more hurtful than a plain-spoken criticism. The Greek root for sarcasm, sarkazein, means to tear flesh like dogs.”
Or like really ticked-off cats. Believe me and the many Band-Aids in my trash can.
But really, those of us who regularly employ sarcasm aren’t just big meanies (well, most of us aren’t … but we are smartasses), and there are benefits to being snarky. Researchers have found it can boost creativity (and no, not just to come up with something funnier than “yo’ mama” jokes).
Harvard behavioral science professor Francesca Gino was one of the researchers on a recent study of sarcasm’s effects, and wrote of the findings in Scientific American in November, saying: “Instead of avoiding sarcasm completely in the office, the research suggests sarcasm, used with care and in moderation, can be effectively used and trigger some creative sparks.”
“Because the brain must think creatively to understand or convey a sarcastic comment, sarcasm may lead to clearer and more creative thinking. To either create or understand sarcasm, tone must overcome the contradiction between the literal and actual meanings of the sarcastic expressions. This is a process that activates, and is facilitated by, abstraction, which in turn promotes creative thinking.”
Gino did note the frequent misinterpretation of sarcasm, especially in written communication. In one study cited, participants who received voice messages were able to accurately identify sarcasm or lack of it 73 percent of the time; those who received the same statements via email could only do so 56 percent of the time. Those who sent the email messages also tended to overestimate how often the sarcastic comments would be correctly identified.
Not everyone understands sarcasm, some for neurological reasons including autism, frontotemporal dementia and strokes with right-side damage (thank God mine was on the left side; that’d make it hard to do this job).
And robots. Kevin Zawacki, writing in The Atlantic in January 2015, said:
“Bots’ understanding of humor is so stunted and feeble, it’s often a punchline itself. Recently, when Siri fumbled a song request, I communicated my irritation with a sarcastic barb.
“‘Siri, you’re brilliant,’ I said, deadpan.
“‘Aw, shucks,’ Siri responded earnestly. Her ignorance is just one example of the chat bots and vocal operating systems that serve as quirky distractions and indispensable digital assistants, but are sorely comedy-deficient.”
Cortana (the “assistant” in Windows 10) seems even less likely to get a joke, much less sarcasm. (Ask her who let the dogs out. You’ll be underwhelmed. Unless you like Baha Men.)
But hey, when we humans can’t always understand it, how can we expect artificial intelligence to get it?
On another note, I’d like to say a big, very un-sarcastic “thank you” to the students who put up with me on Friday at the Arkansas College Media Association conference at the University of Central Arkansas. It was great meeting and talking with all of you.
Hopefully I didn’t scare too many of you off. I’m just glad no one ran out of the room screaming, especially considering it’s been a long time since I’ve done any public speaking.
Sitting in my office behind a computer is much more my speed nowadays. And I’m fairly sure the figures in the Georges Seurat painting on my computer background won’t be psychologically damaged by my attempts at humor.