Sarcasm does not translate in nonverbal chat

Dante Frattini


This is definitely going to be the best column you’ve ever read.

You shouldn’t – and hopefully didn’t – believe that statement.

Maybe one reader is actually very excited to read the best column of his or her life. If you happen to be that reader, then I am sorry about your head injury. I wish you a speedy recovery.

There’s no reason anyone should believe that statement above. It was meant to be sarcastic.

But how would you know that? “Meant to be” actually means very little when dealing with something that’s a matter of perception.

Unfortunately for those who like to communicate in ways other than speaking – i.e., everyone I know who didn’t birth my mom – it is near impossible to convey sarcasm via written word. Text and email included.

In communication there is the “sender” – the person who sends the message – and the “receiver” – the person, who, you guessed it, receives the message. Fascinating stuff, right? Must be why so many people are communication studies majors. Interesting, challenging and applicable!

Successful sarcasm relies almost entirely on the receiver’s ability to perceive emphasis and body language – two things that depend on sight and sound – and then discern their meaning. Good luck doing that via text message. Maybe you can when the iPhone 12 comes out, but until then it’s going to be rough.

Attempting to use sarcasm in a text conversation is a risky move, and should only be attempted in specific situations and by people with the skill and necessary experience.

Remember when I described communication studies as “interesting, challenging, and applicable?” That was sarcasm. If you picked up on that it’s either because you’re my best friend and we make fun of communication studies majors all the time, or it’s because I carefully set it up and tried to make it more obvious with punctuation.

Like a good joke, the setup is immensely important. When I said, “Fascinating stuff, right?” it was pretty clear that I was being sarcastic because the previous sentence’s subject matter was so dull. Then, assuming readers know they’re reading sarcasm, it’s easier to pile on more without worrying if it will translate. Lauding communication studies as “interesting, challenging and applicable” is obvious sarcasm after already establishing that it’s not “fascinating stuff.”

The structure of your sentences isn’t the only key to written sarcasm. In text messages, for instance, you’re rarely writing more than one complete sentence, making it all the more difficult to convey your dry wit without looking like an asshole.

If you’re concerned about coming off as a jerk, your best bet is to just be as literal as possible.

Another safe – although less entertaining – bet is to use indicators like smiley-faces, “haha” and “jk!” That should help when dealing with people who have trouble picking up your offbeat humor.

It also should help when dealing with high school girls.

Which brings me to another point. No, not high school girls. I can’t seem to get my 4,000-word “Age ain’t nothin’ but a number” column approved by my editors.

What I meant was: Why is sarcasm such a problem? Why is it so hard to convey sometimes, even when you’re engaging in face-to-face oral communication?

Pausing so that you may make your own “oral” joke …OK, let’s get back to it.

Who are these people who don’t get sarcasm? It never ceases to amaze me every time someone looks at me with a baffled blank stare because they don’t get that I was making a joke.

Is it a cultural thing? Is it how they were raised? How do these people watch shows like “The Office” or “The Colbert Report” where the main characters almost never mean what they say?

The best way to ensure you don’t ruin friendships by way of misinterpreted joke? Don’t befriend people who lack the sarcasm-detection gene.

You’ve heard the saying, “don’t shoot the messenger”? Well, you’ve never heard “don’t shoot the receiver.” I’m not advocating violence, but I’m just saying that if my – ‘cause let’s be honest, this is all about me – sarcastic comment doesn’t land, it’s not my fault.

I can do no wrong!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go lead an SAT study group.

Dante Frattini can be reached at [email protected]