I try to make myself understood as plainly as possible. That’s not always easy since I like to write about topics that matter to me, many of which are a bit difficult. Add to that a bent to use colorful images that I hope will stay with the reader, and my work often gets a bit dense. I realize all of this, even when I do accidentally use a dollar word where a dime one would work. What I rarely do, however, is use sarcasm to make a point. Strangely, my lack of sarcasm and irony has probably gotten me into more hot water than anything else.
Minnesota, where I live, is a place where the art of understatement colors everyday language with a ferocity more associated with Jackson Pollack than Claude Monet. Describing it that way shows some of the problem, but it’s not entirely my problem. The native language has people speaking past and under people all the time:
“How are you?”
“Not too bad.”
“What’s up with this weather?”
“Could be worse.”
It can go on like this for a while, and it seems innocuous enough. Scratch that, it seems like it’s no big deal. But this kind of understatement is actually a form of sarcasm, called litotes. It was well enough known to the ancient Greeks and Romans to get a fancy name, but it’s mostly common among northern Europeans. It’s a form of sarcasm because you aren’t saying exactly what you mean, even if it seems quite gentle. Anytime someone says, “It could be worse” or “That’s not a bad thing” is dancing around what they really mean.
I don’t do this. Well, I might slip once in a while, but I make a point to avoid it.
I can’t get into too much trouble on a blog this long, but in 140 characters of Twitter I find myself in trouble all the time. It’s just enough space for me to say something a bit off the wall pretty blankly. Unfortunately, anything out of the mainstream is missing a lot of context in a small space, so readers have to fill in a lot of blanks. The blankness of my statements is often taken as sarcastic because, after all, that’s the way everyone talks. There’s not a ton of distance between understatement for effect and deliberate mis-statement for a gag.
This takes me to the greater irony. In an effort to be as plain as possible, it’s easy to take what I’m saying in the wrong way because we aren’t a plain and straightforward culture. Would I be more clear if I was as sarcastic as most people? Perhaps, but only if I nailed it just right every time. Language is always about culture and belonging as much as it is about communication, so theoretically I could hit just the right level of sarcasm, be it in pathos, parody or litotes, and always be understood. Then again, the use of sarcasm varies dramatically with age and social status – there’s a good chance that someone will always miss something done any way other than straight up.
I try not to worry about being misunderstood, even if it’s about the worst thing that can happen to a writer. What I’ve come to understand is that you can’t please everyone and in this diverse world you can’t possibly speak everyone’s language at the same time. The only thing I can possibly do is deliver it to people straight up, and avoid some of the words that … well, words like “litotes” for one. What’s funny is that no matter how straight I make it, someone will probably take it badly. That’s the nature of language, after all, and while I’d prefer that people weren’t as sarcastic as they are it’s not something that’s going to change suddenly. I’ll do my best.