Sarcasm (Eyob Tsegaye, 5/25)

This was the worst lecture ever! I say sarcastically. Really, I meant that sarcastically. #sarcasm And not #sarcasm because I’m referencing sarcasm, #sarcasm because I was being sarcastic.

Yeah…compliments are hard to give sarcastically.

Sarcasm slides



Sarcasm is a subset of verbal irony—saying the opposite of what you mean—where the tone is pointed.

This distinction is important because when talking about processing and recognition because there are certain effects associated with each.

Sarcasm is usually indicated by some change in tone (lowering in English, raising in Cantonese) as well as some interpretation of body communication like facial gestures.

Unsurprisingly, sarcasm is harder to detect over the internet

Poe’s law says that “Without a clear indicator of the author’s intent, parodies of extreme views will be mistaken by some readers for sincere expressions” – This came about because Poe said “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake it for the genuine article”

This is such a problem that people have proposed irony punctuation. Even in the 1580s, some people proposed the backwards question mark, and certain Ethiopic languages, the temherte slaqi (an upside down exclamation mark like thing) is used.

Experiment by Katherine Rankin to see how people process sarcasm

  • Showed people a conversation that looked normal when written but was gestured to be sarcasm when videoed
  • They found that when they watched the video, lots of activity happened in the right parahippocampal gyrus
  • (This was surprising because the left brain was thought to be associated with language)

People tried to use computers to detect sarcasm in tweets and amazon product reviews. They looked at high-frequency words, punctuation marks, and the #sarcasm tag but only found that the last and the ellipsis sign helped.

So how do people notice sarcasm?

Allusional pretense theory says: There is an allusion to failed expectations and a pragmatic insincerity. For example, people are expected to have good hair after a haircut. If the person did not have good hair, they would understand “Nice hair!” to be sarcastic. Also, the situation needs to make it plausible that the comment is insincere.

Implicit display model says: Statements identified as sarcasm are identified as coming from an ironic environment where there is an expectation, this expectation has been violated, and the subject is unhappy about the violation. The sarcastic statement makes a reference to this violation and breaks one of the pragmatic principle (somewhat similar to the “situation needs to make it plausible…” condition given previously). 

  • Pragmatic principles are the rules that govern interpretation of your statements. For example, when you say “I have three children” people generally do not assume you mean you have four children even though your statement would be true. This is because one of these rules is that we give as much information as possible.
  • In the “Nice hair!” example, people usually don’t confirm expectations. Nobody comments on people who turn in their homework all the time turning in their homework. So when someone says “Nice hair!”, they are breaking this rule, thus making the listener suspicious.
  • “Nice hair!” is a hazy case (but many are) because people do say “Nice hair!” when people get really good haircuts (or are suck ups, or are genuinely nice people who say nice things). The contexts in the parentheses are usually predictable, but whether your haircut is really good or not can be hard to tell so people might not know whether or not you’re being sarcastic or not if they have what they think is an okay haircut.

John D. Campbell found that giving generated contexts to people did not help them understand.

The Seven Types of Sarcasm (as identified by Mike Lamb)

  • Self-deprecating – plays on an exaggerated sense of worthlessness
  • Brooding – polite statement in bitter tone
  • Deadpan – said without normal cues but uses extreme statements to make it clear
  • Polite – polite but too nice
  • Obnoxious – repetition
  • Manic – unnatural happiness
  • Raging – uses hyperbole

Taxonomy of sarcasm

  • First degree – saying what you don’t mean, insincerely
  • Second degree – saying what you don’t mean, sincerely
  • Third degree – saying what you mean, insincerely

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