Sarcasm is like jazz—it’s hard to define, but you know it when you hear it. That’s because sarcasm, which is used to convey the opposite of the literal words spoken, is primarily communicated by a person’s tone of voice. You can tell by a speaker’s tone that “Well, that’s exactly what I need right now” means “I sure wish this wasn’t happening.”
Sarcasm can be used to compliment: “You ran a marathon and went to night school? Slacker.” Or to make a good-natured tease: “Would you like some ice cream with your sprinkles?” It can be self-deprecating: “It’s a complete mystery why my high school mullet and I didn’t get more dates.” Or someone might even channel Beyonce: “I woke up like this.”
Sarcasm is used to convey the opposite of the literal words spoken, and it’s primarily communicated by a person’s tone of voice.
More often, though, sarcasm is used to demonstrate irritation or just to be plain old mean: “Yeah, that’s a real genius idea” or maybe “Could you be less competent?”
Before we talk about how to respond when you’re the target of someone’s mean sarcasm, let’s get a little nerdy about the science of sarcasm.
Sarcasm requires more advanced thinking skills
Research shows that sarcasm is understood through both what we say and how we say it. What we say is the opposite of what we really mean, which a listener has to get from the context of the situation. How we say it tends to be lower, slower, and louder.
And all of this information is processed lightning-fast, on the spot. So for all the social mayhem they cause, sarcastic people actually employ some pretty advanced social cognition.
Why advanced? Simply put, it’s because the tone and content oppose each other. A sincere comment in a positive tone—“That is so original!”—or a critical comment in a negative tone—“That is so cliche”—are congruent. A sarcastic comment, however, is often a positive message with a negative tone—“Wow, that’s original!”—which is more complicated for the brain to process.
This doesn’t mean sarcastic people are smarter, despite what some Internet articles might want you to believe.
Now, this doesn’t mean sarcastic people are smarter, despite what some Internet articles might want you to believe. It simply means that the ability to use and understand sarcasm requires a skill called Theory of Mind, which is the ability to detect the mental states of others, including their true feelings, thoughts, and intentions.
So even though what is said is the opposite of what is meant, the sarcastic individual intends the listener to detect the true meaning. That’s why those with deficits in Theory of Mind—like people with schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, or autism—have a hard time understanding or using sarcasm.
Now that we interact with each other on the Internet as much as (or perhaps more than) we do in person, we have to take our sarcasm detection skills up a notch, since many web-based communications don’t include tone. Researchers have even developed algorithms to detect sarcastic Tweets, with some even using emojis.
Neither human judges nor machine algorithms are very good at identifying sarcasm on Twitter.
It seems sarcasm detection is a skill both we and the robots need to work on. Neither human judges nor machine algorithms are very good at identifying sarcasm on Twitter.
Why do people use sarcasm?
But why go to all the trouble of performing this complicated cognitive-linguistic task? Fundamentally, sarcasm is a cover. It’s used to cover anger, embarrassment, awkwardness, envy, hostility, or inadequacy that, without the anti-sugarcoating of sarcasm, feels too forthright. So next time you hear someone use sarcasm, know that, for whatever reason, they couldn’t quite bring themselves to say what they meant directly.
But it turns out that, sometimes, covering up strong emotions with sarcasm can be useful. A 2011 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology asked participants to listen to one of three versions of a customer complaining to his cell phone company:
- Angry—”You make deliveries only between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m.! This is an outrage!”
- Sarcastic—”You make deliveries only between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. Well, that’s just perfect for working people.”
- Neutral—”You make deliveries only between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m.; I am at work during those hours.”
After listening to one of the messages, participants were asked to solve either a set of analytical problems or a set of creative problems.
So what happened? Those who listened to the angry message saw their creative problem-solving abilities hindered, but they kicked butt on the analytical task. In other words, they worked harder, but not smarter. Naked anger squelched creativity. By contrast, those who listened to the sarcastic message actually enhanced their creative problem-solving.
Why? The researchers speculated that because anger is threatening, it automatically puts people on the defensive (which causes them to narrow their problem-solving to just the facts, ma’am) and become more detail-oriented but rigid.
Next time you call customer service, your best bet is to be nice.
By contrast, sarcasm, with its humor and figurative language, is less threatening. Plus, according to the researchers, it requires “more cognitive effort and complex thinking than understanding direct anger.”
So next time you call customer service, your best bet is to be nice. But if nice doesn’t work—and I never thought I’d find myself recommending this—try a little sarcastic humor.
There are many forms of unhealthy communication. In episode 408 of the Savvy Psychologist podcast, Dr. Monica Johnson explains these communication assassins and how they they may be ruining your relationships.
How to respond to mean sarcasm
OK, that’s enough nerdiness about sarcasm. Now, what to do when faced with mean sarcasm?
Response #1: Answer them literally
Sarcasm is supposed to be a joke—a joke that covers anger or contempt or jealousy, but a joke nonetheless. And what’s worse for the joker than having the joke fall flat? So when faced with “That new boyfriend of yours is a real winner” or “Mmmm, love this home cooking!” respond to the content, not the tone.
Respond with the opposite of sarcasm—sincerity.
Respond with the opposite of sarcasm—sincerity. “Great, I’m so glad you like him—let’s all get together” or “Awesome, how about seconds?” When they’re forced to explain, “Well, actually, that’s not what I meant,” it gets awkward, but you’ve inoculated yourself against further attacks.
Response #2: Ignore them (and maybe throw some compassion their way)
This works best for strangers who yell “Nice driving!” or the equivalent. Folks willing to put time and energy into putting down total strangers are pretty miserable and want you to feel as lousy as they do—feel some compassion for them and move on.
Response #3: Label real feelings and follow up with sincere questions
Sometimes, when someone is being sarcastically mean, they’re trying to express something they feel but they don’t know how. It’s possible they feel vulnerable. You can help them (and yourself) by labeling what emotions you think they’re trying to express and following up by sincerely opening up a dialogue. For example: “I’m sensing that you’re feeling angry. Does this situation seem unfair to you? What’s on your mind?” Or “I know this feels really awkward. Let’s try to start on the right foot. Here’s what I was thinking …”
Response #4: Give some free advice
Sarcasm comes in different flavors. Some folks are sarcastic to make fun of an absurd world. They’re laughing with you, not at you. Or maybe they’re even laughing at themselves. That’s fine—let them be.
But those who are laughing at you often honestly think they’re being funny. They don’t realize they leave a trail of hurt feelings—not to mention higher odds of divorce and greater chances of getting fired—in their wake.
If you care about someone with a habitually hostile wit, consider a gentle intervention: “You have such a wickedly sharp sense of humor. I know you don’t mean to be hurtful, but your sarcasm sometimes comes across as hostile, which I’m guessing is not your intention.”
If you’ve come along for this deep dive into sarcasm without saying “Wow, how interesting,” then when I say “Thanks for listening,” know that it’s sincere.
This article was originally written by Dr. Ellen Hendriksen. It has been substantially updated by Dr. Jade Wu.
Patricia Rockwell , Lower, Slower, Louder: Vocal Cues of Sarcasm Journal of Psycholinguistic Research. 2000
Joshua T. Kantrowitz, Matthew J. Hoptman, David I Leitman, Gail Silipo, and Daniel C. Javitt, The 5% Difference: Early sensory processing predicts sarcasm perception in schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder . 2014
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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.