Sarcasm Bites

The tone makes the music.

Posted Apr 11, 2015

photo by J. Krueger
Source: photo by J. Krueger

Instructing us in the basics of paraverbal behavior, our mother used to say “Der Ton macht die Musik” (The tone makes the music). She anticipated the experimental finding that the reception and the effectiveness of communication depends more strongly on nonverbal (posture, gestures) and paraverbal (tone, pitch, accent) properties than on the contents of the message (Mehrabian & Ferris, 1967).

Humans are adept at signaling intent and meaning using paraverbal cues. Such cues can support the explicit, semantic meaning of the speech act, but they can also undermine it, ambiguate it, or contradict it outright. This can give rise to humor, irony, satire, misunderstanding, and conflict. One particularly sophisticated use of paraverbals renders a message sarcastic (Gibbs, 1986). Sarcasm is the kind of irony that stands in the service of aggression, particularly the passive kind, which preserves the communicator’s sense of deniability (or so she thinks, har har).

photo by J. Krueger
Source: photo by J. Krueger

Much as we would like to give a written example of sarcasm, we can’t. The written word lacks, by definition, that which sarcastifies it: the paraverbals that undo the message. One can only try, perhaps by writing something like “Well, this is just great!” This may work, sort of, to the extent that you, dear reader, bring to mind a sarcastic sounding voice that gives the written word what it does not have: the tone that makes the music.

My student Julia Elia, a rising junior at Brown University, radio person, aspiring musicologist and psychologist, has given sarcasm a lot of thought. She did some research on the tonality of sarcasm, what it is, how it varies (or does not vary) over cultures and languages, and how we detect it. She has produced a podcast with her findings, which is linked below. But first, here’s her written introduction, which, in all seriousness, is not sarcastic at all.

Julia Elia:

Sarcasm bites, literally. Stemming from the Greek, Sarkasmos, it translates as “to bite one’s lip in rage.” Yet, when you picture someone delivering a sarcastic statement, odds are the teenage girl in your mind is far too jaded and chill than to show her hand by biting her lip. Linguistically, sarcasm is an irrational phenomenon. Why would anyone say exactly the opposite of what they mean?

Whether animals can express sarcasm is contested, but certainly humans’ use of sarcasm is so pervasive that it is unrivaled amongst species. From People Magazine to the Bible, cited examples of irony abound. Skye McDonald, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales, believes that we use sarcasm as an easy way out. It’s simpler morphologically and we get to express aggressive intent without an aggressive display. Others, such as Toplak and Katz of the University of Western Ontario, show sarcasm exonerates the user. Their studies conclude targets of hurtful statements were less offended when the comments came in a sarcastic shell.

Irony acts as a code above the information expressed by the language itself. An example of another such linguistic code is a dialectal accent. When you hear someone speak with a Southern drawl, you make immediate assumptions based on the knowledge of where you surmise they’re from. Accents convey a wealth of social information at a rate that exceeds any morphological utterances. Sarcasm acts in a similar way; simply by perceiving it, you can predict it’s going to be bad news.

Sarcasm, itself, can be thought of as an aggregate of linguistic codes. Pitch inversion, utterance elongation, and nasalization are all factors that combine to be perceived as snarky. There is no one golden equation for the perfect sarcastic delivery. However, each culture and language has a unique formula. Take for example Albanian: in typical sarcastic speech, the statement is longer and lower in pitch. Contrast this with Macedonian, wherein a snide comment is more likely to be quicker and higher in pitch. When we encounter novel audio expressions, we rely on further contextual clues, body language, e.g., to piece the actual meaning together. 

To learn more about the neurology of sarcasm and hear examples of sarcasm spanning across languages, listen to this podcast.

Gibbs, R. W. (1986). On the psycholinguistics of sarcasm. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 115, 3-15.

McDonald, S. (1999). Exploring the process of inference generation in sarcasm: A review of normal and clinical studies. Brain and Language, 68, 486-506.

Mehrabian, A., & Ferris, S. R. (1967). Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 31, 248-252.

Toplak, M., & Katz, A. N. (2000). On the uses of sarcastic irony. Journal of Pragmatics, 32, 1467-88.