Writing Sarcasm

The difference between satire and sarcasm makes the first one easier to express in writing. I can take a well-known trope and push it to an unreasonable extreme to create a satirical story. However, delivery of sarcastic lines often requires a tone of voice, something with an edge to it, so the recipient realizes what I am saying in a serious voice is not at all what I mean. A specific tone of voice is hard to replicate in writing.

I recall sitting with a group of women who chatted around a table. Their topic concerned what it took to be a “Southern Lady.” They based most of their storytelling yarns on their mother’s instructions while competing with each to relate the most outlandish piece of advice. Their conversation gave me some insights into writing sarcasm.

One of the women sweetly drawled, “I never could understand my mother’s bit about making sure I had on clean underwear before going on a car trip in case I was in an accident.”

Another woman added, “Me neither. If I were in a car crash and bleeding to death, I doubt anyone would be worried about how clean my underwear was.”

The first woman continued with a honeyed giggle bound to draw attention to her. “Still she would remind me every time we got in the car. Sometimes, she simply would insist that I go back in the house and put on another pair, but I would have none of that.”

“My mother would insist that I put on clean underwear, too,” a third woman chimed in. “I simply refuse to do it.”

“Intentionally wearing dirty underwear—what a great way to stand up to your mothers.” I commented.

At first, they looked confused because my tone of voice was completely dry. Finally, the third woman shot me a nasty look.

That is the difficulty with using sarcasm as humor in writing. It is a biting way of bringing attention to a lack of logic. It is a backward manner of saying what I really don’t mean. Unlike satire, a type of buffoonery used to ridicule a subject that is often not there, sarcasm almost always requires the presence of the person caught in the mistake to make sense. The inflection of a sarcastic comment is subtle. It is not accompanied with “Let me tell you about…” or the guffaws that often mark brazen attempts at humor.

Without these cues some people are unsure how to respond. Psychologist Penny Pexman from University of Calgary confirmed in her study that people are more likely to use sarcasm with their friends than strangers. She also found that children as young as five can be adept at picking up the real meaning behind facetious comments, which they evidently learn from their parents. But using sarcasm does make others think and even helps them solve problems according to research. [1]

However, studies have uncovered significant differences in use of sarcasm by country and even between regions in the United States. 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. They only needed to reply with an even more witty barb.

[1] Richard Chin, “The Science of Sarcasm? Yeah, Right” Smithsonian.com, November 14, 2011

This entry was posted in Creativity, Laughter and humor, Literature, Teaching writing skills and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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