The group of women were discussing their mother’s instructions on being a “Southern Lady,” and in their story telling manner they competed with each other trying to relate the most outlandish piece of advice.
“I never could understand that bit about making sure I had on clean underwear before going on a car trip in case I was in an accident,” drawled one.
“Me neither,” agreed a second woman with a honeyed giggle, “If I were in a car crash and bleeding, I doubt anyone would be worried about how clean my underwear was.”
“Still she would remind me every time we got in the car.” The first woman continued with a laugh, “Sometime she simply would insist that I go back in the house and put on another pair.”
“My mother would insist that I put on clean underwear, too,” a third woman chimed in. “I simply refuse to do it.”
“What a great way to stand up to your mom, by intentionally wearing dirty underwear.” I commented straight faced.
At first they looked confused, and finally one of them shot me a dirty look. Which brings me to the difficulty with using sarcasm as humor. I realize it is a biting way of saying what I really don’t mean to bring attention to a flaw. Unlike satire, a type of buffoonery often expressed when the subject of ridicule is not there, sarcasm almost always requires the presence of the person caught in the act to make sense. The inflection of a sarcastic comment is subtle. It is not accompanied with “Let me tell you this one…” or the laugh and giggles that often mark brazen attempts at humor at the expense of others. Without these cues some people sometimes are unsure how to respond.
However, there is a benefit to getting the gist of this kind of humor, even if it is aimed at you. The extra work to understand unspoken meaning behind sarcasm actually seems to make us smarter. In a study in Israel, college students listening to complaints on a customer service line were able to come up with more creative solutions to problem if the complaint was delivered in a sarcastic tone of voice. University of Haifa psychologist, Simone Shamay-Tsoory noted that people’s ability to understand sarcasm is related their level of social cognition. She found the area of the brain responding to comments that means the opposite of what one is saying also enables us to recognize emotions and social issues. When people suffered damage to the prefrontal lobe, which controls executive processing, they have a harder time picking up sarcasm. The loss of ability to “get” a sarcastic remark may be the beginning of a brain disease.
Psychologist Penny Pexman from University of Calgary confirmed in her study that people are more likely to use sarcasm with the friends than strangers. She also found that children as young as five can be adept at picking up the real meaning behind facetious comments. They evidently learn it from their parents. But then research has also have uncovered significant regional differences. A whopping 20% more Northerners in the U.S found sarcasm funnier than people from the South did. So I suppose I shouldn’t look too harshly on the trio of “Southern” women not knowing the appropriate way to respond to sarcasm – with an even wittier barb.