A couple of weeks ago I had an embarrassing Twitter fail: I read a Tweet completely straight when it was intended to be sarcastic.
Some Twitter users bring the hashtag #sarcasm into play to make sure their communities get the right message, but in this case they hadn’t. So I was decoding the Tweet completely ‘blind’. If I’d known the person better, or we were face to face, I’d have realised their intentions in a flash. But it was a Twitter ‘friend’, about whom I know next to nothing except they’re fun to be connected with.
It just goes to show how difficult it is to express sarcasm and its gentler relative, irony, in writing, especially when all the usual facial expression and tone of voice cues are missing. The experience got me thinking about sarcasm and irony, and searching for insights into how our brains process them.
Is sarcasm really the lowest form of wit?
It turns out that sarcasm gives the human brain a serious workout. No surprise when you have to decode much more than a simple, straightforward message. When faced with sarcasm your brain has to do a double-take to identify that the statement isn’t being made at face value, a complex process.
Neuroscientists have discovered irony and sarcasm often take a lot longer to process than literal statements, relying on a greater variety of neural networks. It looks like areas of the brain that help us with interpreting people’s intentions and social information play a vital part in decoding the so-called lowest form of wit.
We learn sarcasm skills very early
Apparently, between friends, just under 10% of remarks are not intended to be taken at face value. Humans can grasp ironic statements as early as aged five. And younger children use non-verbal signals denoting sarcasm with ease, including the all-time classic of slapping your own forehead in mock despair and rolling your eyes.
How come humans love it so much?
Some evolutionary psychologists theorise our love of sarcasm stems from an instinctive desire to test whether or not others have a similar level of intelligence to ourselves. Others think it’s because sarcasm allows us to vent our frustration and be critical without descending into rudeness and hostility.
In 2011 a study in Israel looked at all the different ways we might complain about bad customer service. They discovered that while hostility didn’t help customer service staff dream up creative solutions, sarcasm worked beautifully to improve the solutions they delivered to consumers’ problems. And Amazon reviews have proved fertile ground for researchers too. A machine-learning algorithm has recently correctly identified an impressive 78% of sarcastic reviews, a dramatically better performance than their experiments with Twitter, whose 140 character limit means Tweets lack context and makes sarcasm so much harder to spot.
Can we use sarcasm and irony when copywriting?
All this begs the question: since humans in all cultures (as proved by even more research) appreciate and use sarcasm fluidly and fluently in everyday life, to a surprising degree, is it a good idea to bring it into play when creating online content or writing offline marketing materials?
I’d instinctively say no. It’s difficult to make sarcasm clear in writing without expressly explaining your intentions, which defeats the object. The risks seem to outweigh the potential benefits, especially when consumers of content are so time-poor and impatient. It would be horribly easy to miss the cues and misunderstand, to potentially horrific commercial effect! But perhaps it deserves careful thought. What do you think?