Why Sarcasm's Days Are Numbered

The human face is often the most critical component in delivering effective sarcasm. . elbud/Shutterstock

In these uncertain times, the world needs all the sarcasm it can get.

Of course, that statement could be dripping with sarcasm and you wouldn't know it. Don’t worry, your sarcasm detector isn’t broken. It’s just that words on a screen — the prevailing mode of communication in the digital age — just can’t handle the fine nuances that sarcasm requires.

As a result, sarcasm is dying. And if anything, the internet is dealing the death blow.

It all comes down to one of the most crippling shortcomings of electronic communications: insufficient information. On the surface, written words may seem like an effective way to convey facts and details. But for the central processor that is the human mind, words in a chat bubble don’t offer nearly as much data as those that are spoken.

In a study published by the American Psychological Association, researchers noted several "paralinguistic" cues — the gestures, intonation, emphasis, even the expression on the speaker’s face — were just as essential for conveying information as the words themselves.

But as the researchers pointed out, those cues are lost in digital translation. Even worse, people on the internet don't always realize nobody is getting their sarcasm.

They suggest it’s an overconfidence "born of egocentrism, the inherent difficulty of detaching oneself from one's own perspective when evaluating the perspective of someone else."

Sarcasm requires a two-way street

A sarcastic statement
When it comes to sarcasm, seeing is believing (or not believing). Halcja/Shutterstock

Think of sarcasm as a two-way radio. It takes a transmitter (that snarky little nephew of yours) and a receiver (your wounded pride). In an electronic exchange, the transmitter is seriously underpowered, leaving the receiver to take those words at face value.

Imagine, for instance, texting your your aunt Hilda that she makes outstanding lemon rind pie and you can’t wait to come over for dinner next week.

Now, imagine telling her that, while wincing your nose and adding particular emphasis to the words "can't wait."

In one case, Aunt Hilda is already excitedly collecting lemon rinds. In the other, you’re banished from Aunt Hilda-land.

You can see then, how failed sarcasm can send exactly the opposite message of what was intended — with disastrous potential.

But the death of sarcasm could be an even more serious blow to the brain.

As Katherine Rankin, a neuropsychologist at the University of California, explained in Smithsonian magazine, sarcasm is one of life’s most essential social skills.

"Our culture in particular is permeated with sarcasm," she said. "People who don’t understand sarcasm are immediately noticed. They’re not getting it. They’re not socially adept."

And for kids, sarcasm represents a graduation from basic slapstick humor to the more refined realm of sarcasm.

"Younger kids think slapstick is funny, and plays on words. But not sarcasm," Melanie Glenwright, a psychologist at the University of Manitoba, noted in a 2007 study.

As the brain develops, so too does its ability to move on from overt physical humor to the more sophisticated humor of sarcasm. Researchers have found that a healthy ability to give and receive sarcasm is a major factor in the brain’s ability to problem-solve and think creatively.

And while a brain that gives sarcasm as well as it gets it is a healthy brain, the opposite may be a sign of mental illness.

Various emojis
Emojis may be an unlikely savior for sarcasm on the internet. MNN

Maybe society’s shift toward emoji-based communication will help fill in a few of those paralinguistic cues and let sarcasm thrive again.

But they’re no substitute for the "smiley face" humans make when they’re actually delivering the words.