What’s so Funny? How to Understand & Respond to Sarcasm in Spoken English

If you don’t understand a joke or humourous comment in another language, it can make you feel like a bit of an outsider. Engaging in humour, either by attempting to be funny or by reacting to someone else’s humour, can cause anxiety (or stress) if you’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable with it. This is true even if you speak the same language, since humour differs from culture to culture.  

For example, I’m Canadian, and I went to England for the first time to meet my relatives when I was 12 years old. At the end of a short stay, my younger cousin, who I had only a few days earlier, said to me, “OK, we’ve had enough of you now. You can go home.” She ended with a warm smile, so I immediately identified that it was a joke, and that she actually meant the opposite – that she was enjoying my visit.

For a very short moment, though, I remember feeling uncomfortable with what my cousin said, and didn’t know how to respond. I remember that I laughed. That actually was an appropriate response, but looking back, it would have been even better for the purpose of bonding with my cousin if had I responded back to her with my own sarcasm. As you might understand from this story, generally speaking, sarcasm is used a little differently from culture to culture. A lot does depend on the situation and the individuals, however.  

What is sarcasm?

Sarcasm is when people say something very different or even opposite to what they actually mean, but not for the purpose fooling (or deceiving) someone. Often the goal is to mock (or make fun of) someone or something – either lightly, just to tease, or strongly, to be cruel. Another word for sarcasm is irony. But not situational irony or dramatic irony – those terms are used in literature. When people say that sarcasm and irony are the same thing, they are referring to verbal irony. But actually, while verbal irony is neutral, sarcasm is negative. I’ll just use the term sarcasm from now on.  

Why should you learn about English language sarcasm? 

  1. Well, sarcasm and similar humour make up around 8% or more of the English language. (Gibbs, 2000) This is enough to make it important for you to learn.
  2. But if you don’t come from a culture that uses a lot of this type of humour, you might misinterpret something if it’s being said sarcastically. You might get hurt feelings or even get angry. This makes learning about sarcasm in English even more important! 
  3. Sarcasm is used to criticize, to assert or reinforce power, and sometimes just to insult or be mean. However, in many cases it has very positive functions. It can be used to entertain or amuse people, to bond with people (or create very good relationships), and to flirt. These useful functions of sarcasm are yet another good reason to learn about it. 

Sarcasm can a very dark and witty (or clever) type of humour. It can indeed be very biting (or nasty, cutting, sharp, stinging, caustic, scathing), so unless you’re very confident in your English skills and your ability to be sarcastic, I would be careful. In fact, I might suggest that you don’t try to produce sarcasm until you understand it extremely well.  

However, you can definitely learn to detect (or identify) it, to understand it, and to respond to it. And hopefully you can also learn to appreciate (or enjoy) it. 

 Now you know why you should learn about English language sarcasm. This type of humour is used a lot in the English language. Understanding sarcasm can help you avoid feeling uncomfortable, isolated, or even unnecessarily hurt or offended. Instead, you’ll be better able to enjoy English and connect well with English speakers. 

It’s been said that if you understand the humour of another language (and find it funny), then you’ve likely already reached a high level of proficiency (or ability) in that language. I think that this is true, and particularly true if your mother tongue and culture are very different from English. I know many Japanese, for example, who have reached a very high level of English proficiency, but still miss the nuances of sarcasm. For some English language learners, sarcasm in English can be extremely difficult to understand – but not impossible. 

I’ve explained what sarcasm is, why it’s important to learn, and briefly mentioned a few of its functions. I could talk about those functions more, but I want to focus more on giving you practical information. The rest of this post is divided into two parts. First, I’ll share some features of sarcasm so that you can identify it when you hear it. Second, I’ll give you some advice on how to respond to it. 

Features of Sarcasm 

Sarcastic comments are often difficult to identify in written English because there are no verbal or visual cues (or hints). Context is therefore very important to determine whether or not something is sarcastic. Sometimes writers will end their sarcastic comments with a wink emoji to show that they are joking, or in contrast they might end with a simple smiley icon to show they are being literal and not sarcastic.  

In spoken English, however (which I’m guessing might be what you are more interested in), it’s a bit easier to identify sarcasm. It can be identified by the way a comment is said – such as tone of voice, by visual cues – such as facial expressions and gestures – by hyperbole (or exaggeration), or by context (the situation and relationship between people).  

Tone of voice

When someone is being sarcastic, you might notice one or more of the following: 

  1. A pitch that is lower than the speaker’s normal pitch. (Pitch just means the level of highness or lowness in your voice.) 
  2. Extra stress/ emphasis on certain words or parts of words, especially vowels.  
  3. Longer time taken than normal to say something (a result of 1 and 2 above) 
  4. Slightly reduced volume (muttering is common in sarcastic comments – muttering just means talking in a low voice that is difficult to hear) 
  5. Sighing before or while saying something 

Below are I will read to you and I will say each sentence twice (please follow along in the video!). The first time is normal, meaning I will say what I mean. The second time will be sarcastic, meaning my feelings are opposite to what I am saying. Can you identify the difference in my tone of voice? I’m not going to show my face for these to make it harder for you.

  1. That was the most exciting lecture I’ve heard in a while.  
  2. Oh yeah. He’s definitely going to win. 
  3. Umm, chewy. That’s just how I like it. 
  4. Thanks a lot for your help. 
  5. Wow, I love what you’ve done with the place! It looks great! 

Did you catch the difference? Play it again if you need to.  

A “DRY” tone of voice

Regarding tone of voice, there is an important point I should make. When people talk with family and friends and they want to be sarcastic, they may not necessarily use a sarcastic tone of voice. This is because friends and family know each other so well that they dont require additional vocal cues (or hints) to understand when someone is being sarcastic. I have a friend like this, and I admit sometimes I find it hard to decide if he’s being sarcastic or not. In such cases, the person who is being sarcastic is often referred to as being“dry.  

Remember that context is important. Even when friends and family talk on the telephone, they will have to alter their tone of voice if they want to be sarcastic, because the people cannot see each other – there are no visual cues. 

And speaking of visual cues, the next way you can identify sarcasm is through body language.

Visual Cues

In addition to tone of voice, sarcasm can be showed through gestures and facial expressions. For example, people who are being sarcastic might roll their eyes, shrug their shoulders, or raise their eyebrows. They might grimace or frown while while saying something that would otherwise be viewed positively, or they might smile while saying something that would otherwise be viewed negatively. If they want to challenge someone to believe what they are saying, they might purse their lips making a pouting expression and directly gaze at you.

Basically, their gestures and facial expressions do not match what they are saying. This body language is usually added to changes in tone of voice, making it easier to identify. Watch the video in the segment (part) where I say the phrases I read before, this time with my own visual cues added. Again, the first time I say something, it’s literal – I mean what I say. And the second time, I’m being ironic – I mean the opposite of what I’m saying. My intended meaning is posted on the video after each utterance (after each thing I say).  

Literal (sincere): Morksensei genuinely feels that the lecture was exciting. 

Ironic (sarcastic): Morksensei actually feels that the lecture was boring.  

Literal (sincere): Morksensei is genuinely sure that he will win. 

Ironic (sarcastic): Morksensei actually feels that he will not win. Maybe he hasn’t been performing well recently, maybe there is a better player now, etc.  

Literal (sincere): Morksensei is eating something chewy, and genuinely likes it. 

Ironic (sarcastic): Morksensei is eating something that is supposed to be chewy but is not (and therefore unappealing). OR Morksensei is eating something that’s chewy, but shouldn’t be (and is therefore unappealing). If the listener made the food for Morksensei, then the sarcasm is meant to be taken light-heartedly – if the listener is close enough. 

Literal (sincere): Morksensei is genuinely thankful for the help and is showing it. 

Ironic (sarcastic): Morksensei did not feel the help she got was useful OR did not feel that she got any help at all. If the person Morksensei is talking to is close enough, the sarcasm here is taken light-heartedly. 

Literal (sincere): Morksensei is complimenting the listener’s remodeling or redecoration of a physical space (usually a home, but could also be an office space, etc). 

Ironic (sarcastic): Morksensei is criticizing how the listener, who has not properly maintained or decorated a physical space. Maybe the space is dirty, messy, lacking décor, in need of paint, etc. If the person Morksensei is talking to is close enough, the sarcasm here is taken light-heartedly. 

A “DEADPAN” delivery

There is an important point I should make about visual cues that are provided with body language. Sometimes people show sarcasm by removing all gestures and body language as well as changes to tone of voice. A person might say something that is usually said full of emotion in a very “deadpan” way. Deadpan basically means neutral – lacking exaggeration or emotion. Again, you can identify this as sarcasm because the neutral tone of voice and the lack of body language don’t match the content of what’s being said. Watch my delivery in the video of me saying the following phrases:

  1. I’m so overcome with emotion right now. 
  2. Your sad story is torturing my soul so much that I don’t know how I will be able to make it through the day without killing myself. 
  3. I’m so excited that I think I’ll jump up and down with unbridled joy for the next six hours straight. (unbridled = uncontrolled) 

I hope you understood from watching me deliver those three statements that I didn’t really feel the way I said I was feeling. In addition to illustrating how a deadpan delivery can show sarcasm, I hope you also noted that the actual words I was saying were also hyperbolic.

Hyperbole

Hyperbolic (or hyperbole in noun form) means exaggerated beyond reasonableness. So, for example, I said “your sad story is torturing my soul so much that I don’t know how I’ll be able to make it through the day without killing myself.” Well, to be honest, even if your story really did make me sad, I would unlikely kill myself. I also said I was so excited that I would jump up and down with joy for the next six hours. Well, even if it were true that I was really excited, I probably wouldn’t jump up and down for joy for the next six hours. These are exaggerations that I used to emphasize that I was not being literal; that I didn’t really mean what I was saying. 

Sometimes hyperbole is necessary to make sarcasm clear. For example, if you recently read a terrible book that you thought it was a big waste of time, you could say, sarcastically, “Yeah, I liked it” but that probably isn’t enough in this case. People might actually think that you liked it. Instead, you can be hyperbolic and say something like, “Oh yeah, I absolutely adoured it. I think it was the best book I’ve ever read in my life. It’s definitely going to win the Pulitzer Prize!” The sarcasm is now much clearer, I hope.  

OK, so I’ve finished explaining some main features of sarcasm. I hope you’re now better able to identify it when you hear it.  Now then, let’s move onto how to respond to sarcasm. I’ll outline a few scenarios for you that might help you deal with this type of discourse (or communication).

Responding to Sarcasm in English

Now you might not have had to deal with sarcasm in English before, but since sarcasm is common in the English language, you’ll eventually be confronted with it as you get better at English. It’s therefore a good idea to know how to respond. Let me share a few scenarios to demonstrate how. 

Scenario #1: 

You’re not 100% sure, but you suspect that someone you don’t know or don’t have a relationship with is being sarcastic. If you feel that this person is probably just trying to hurt your feelings or impress someone, I would simply just ignore him or her. If the speaker is someone you know, then just ask! It’s OK to remind them that you are not a native English speaker and have trouble identifying sarcasm. You might end up having a conversation about sarcasm and learning more. 

Scenario #2:

A speaker is directing a sarcastic comment back at him or herself. Maybe this person is expressing frustration with his or her actions or characteristics. Perhaps the speaker is feeling insecure, so prefers to quickly judge or blame his or herself before someone else does. An example? “Yeah, right. I’m sure the boss will pick me to go on the trip. I’m obviously the smartest employee here.” Obviously, the person who says this feels the opposite, so a good way to respond is with kindness and support. You could say something like, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You provide value here, too, you know.” At the very least you can be reassuring by smiling at the person, and not negatively judging him or her.  

Scenario #3: 

If a speaker uses sarcasm to show frustration with a situation which is not your fault, then it’s possible that this person simply wants to connect with you over a something she or he feels you will feel the same about. You can show your agreement with the speaker by smiling, nodding, and/or making a rejoinder such as “I know what you mean,” or “Yeah, no kidding” or “You’re telling me!” or “Right?!”, etc.  

However, if it’s possible that you are the cause of the situation, the speaker’s sarcasm might be an indirect way of expressing frustration with you. If that’s the case,… 

Scenario #4: 

If the sarcasm is directed at you, first you have to decide whether to interpret it as friendly or light-hearted, or hostile or negative. If you’re sure the sarcasm’s is light-hearted, don’t take it personally, even if you don’t appreciate the humour. I would give a friendly smile. If you’re not able to smile genuinely, I would suggest that you fake a smile. This will show that you realize that the speaker’s intention was not hostile, but at the same time, you didn’t really appreciate the comment. 

Now, what if the speaker is really being mean to you through sarcasm? How should you respond? Well, actually, in this case as well, I would try not to quickly take offence (or take it personally). If you get upset, it may make the situation worse.

Instead, think about why the speaker might be upset with you. If you know why, then apologize. If you still cannot understand what you did to make them hostile, then just be honest and ask. For example, you could say, “Sorry, it’s clear that you’re upset with me, but I honestly cannot figure out what I did to make you feel this way.” If you say something like that, you would not only be communicating clearly and honestly, but you would also be helping to defuse (or destress) the situation. The speaker may even end up apologizing. 

Hopefully, those scenarios are enough to show how you can respond to sarcasm well. Now, there are other types of humour that are related to sarcasm, and these are satire and parody, but I didn’t get into those in this video. Let me know if you want me to talk about those another time. There are also literary devices (or tools) related to sarcasm, such as oxymorons and paradoxes.

What are your Experiences with sarcasm in English as a non-native English speaker? Have you ever discovered that something intended as sarcasm was literal? Do you use sarcasm in your own language? Is learning sarcasm in English difficult? Please comment below and/or in the Youtube video comments section. 🙂

Resources: 

Check out this site to practice recognizing sarcasm (this site also supplied me with ideas for this post): https://socialcommunication.truman.edu/attitudes-emotions/sarcasm/sarcasm-exercises/ 

The BBC Learning English site has an archived lesson on sarcasm you can check out: http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/radio/specials/1210_how_to_converse/page13.shtml 

Check out this article from How Stuff Works about sarcasm: https://people.howstuffworks.com/sarcasm.htm 

References: 

Shapiro, M. (n.d.) Sarcasm. Social Communication. Accessed 2021 from https://socialcommunication.truman.edu/attitudes-emotions/sarcasm/  

Rcynski, J. & Prichard, C. (2020). Humor competency training for sarcasm and Jocularity. In Rcynski, J. & Prichard, C. (Eds.). Bridging the humor barrier. Humor competency training in English language teaching (pp. 165-191). Lexington Books, London. 

Rcynski, J. & Prichard, C. [Caleb Prichard] (2021, April 30). JALT PanSig2021: Humor competence in intercultural communication. [Video]. YouTube  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dd_0O0kAZ_c&list=PLO6r8wjIYUL0gIElxZrYHSiwMH6yvJyTu 

 

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