Business culture

He’s kidding, right? How to understand sarcasm in English.

Why is everyone laughing but you? Well...isn't this awkward. Let's try to not make it awkward and figure out sarcasm in English

Sarcasm – noun sar·casm \ˈsär-ˌka-zəm\

a sharp and often satirical statement to be funny

While with an English -speaking counterpart in a casual setting, you might hear him or her say something confusing, and after an awkward pause, they might add “it was a joke” or “just joking”. More likely than not, you have just experienced sarcasm.

Sarcasm is not a unique concept in English. All languages and cultures have ways of telling jokes that satirize how things are working (or not working) in their part of the world. But it can be particularly challenging to understand sarcasm when you are not a native speaker and may not know the person telling the joke.

Americans often like to describe themselves as sarcastic, particularly younger Americans. Sarcasm is often seen as being aware about the world, and being informed enough to know all the problems. It’s also a great way to start a conversation in lighthearted and meaningful way, and while there is a lot to write about when it comes to America’s long and storied tradition of political humor and comedy as a whole, we are not going to discuss that today. Instead, we’re going to look at a couple of ways to pick up on sarcasm in English as well as how to respond if you are not sure.

Is this sarcasm? A few easy ways to identify it while listening:

  • If the statement seems strange or over the top – this is often a key indicator of sarcasm. Sarcasm often uses weird ideas and pushes them to the extreme in order to make it funny for the listener. Americans often like to use subtle forms of sarcasm, meaning they may try to make their sarcasm seem real or believable, only for the listener to realize that it was a joke the whole time.  For instance, you can look at this article from The Onion, a joke online newspaper, wrote a fake and sarcastic article about how Johnson & Johnson Introduces “Nothing But Tears” Shampoo to Toughen Up Newborns. Of course no one would want to make babies cry. It’s extreme. But it seems plausible enough that someone might think this is a real story.
  • If it is related to current eventsBigly. Yuge. Pepsi solves the world’s problems. Sarcasm is often made to poke fun at things going on in the news, and while people generally try to avoid politics or religion when meeting someone, you may often see references to politics as a source of comedy. Below is an example of comedy from The New Yorker, a popular weekly magazine famous for it’s cartoons, about Donald Trump, Kim Jung-un, and their hair

“This town ain’t big enough for the both of our haircuts.”
“This town ain’t big enough for the both of our haircuts” (copyright: The New Yorker)

  • Ending in “right?” – while not always indicating sarcasm, English speakers will often end their sarcastic statement with a tagging question to let the listener know that the person was joking.
  • A question that isn’t a question – you might here someone say a sentence that follows a question format, but won’t raise their voice at the end of the sentence. They are using a normal tone to state a question. That is often a key indicator of sarcasm.

So how should I respond if I don’t know if it is sarcasm

Simple. You can say something like “you’re kidding, right?” or “that’s a joke, right?”. Sometimes it’s hard to tell sarcasm even for native English speakers, so asking a tagging question like the one above is a good way to find out. No one will judge you if you don’t know someone is sarcastic.

VOCABULARY

counterpart – (n.) a person from another company or department you are working with
to satirize – (v.) to make fun of, to use irony to point to odd or strange things about something
storied – (adv.) well documented, well known
over the top – (phrase) extreme, to the extreme
subtle – (adj.) difficult to perceive or understand right away; not obvious
plausible – (adj.) appearing to be true, seemingly worth believing as true.

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