Home » People & Culture » Sarcasm


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.

8 thoughts on “Sarcasm

  1. I believe the name of Satchmo’s song was “What a Wonderful World”. The words as I best recall go something like this:
    The people on the street sayin’ “How do you do?”
    What they’re really sayin’ is “I Love You.”
    When someone comes up to me at church or on the bus and they say “How you doin?” I can’t tell them that I haven’t been getting good strokes from my work, my family, or my life, and I’m really in the dumps and have been for a long time. They don’t have time for all of that, and most of them have their own problems as well. I usually say “Fine”, not bad, or sometimes I tell them the truth: “It’s been a rough road for a while.”
    I don’t have to expound on it. My problems are mine, and too many people think they can solve my problems, but that would make them their problems, which is a very different mess. I don’t necessarily want them included in my problems–I have enough troubles as it is.

    When Erik writes, I read. A student of Myers-Briggs (and I recommend the book “Please Understand Me II” by David Keirsey) indicates that people with different personality profiles communicate in very different manners. We are basically hardwired in a way that predisposes us to different usages of the Language for our needs. A person who is well versed in this area of psychology could conceivably listen to a speech on most any topic, and come away with an identification of the speaker’s personality by way of the Myers Briggs tools.

    While that may have seemed a bit off the subject, I am quite fascinated by the Myers Briggs Temperament Index. It also begs to address the difference between the speaker and the listener. The closer the match of personality types, the more likely that the communication of the receptor would match the intended meaning of the transmitter. Mood and experience would tend to flavor this as well.
    Sarcasm certainly is a useful tool to some people. It is often weilded as a weapon, though in comedy, especially for our beloved politicians, it is frequently a very befitting tool. Political comedy is a significant part of how our society digests the facts and it does affect the outcome of our elections.
    As far as the Litote useage is concerned, I am more interested in hearing what Erik has to say rather than how he is. If he want so sit down and chat with me over coffee, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Maybe the right response to “How do you do?” is something to the effect of: “Good enough. What’s on your mind?”

  2. Interesting article and follow up comment, I would like to read more of your guy’s thoughts on Myers Briggs. I have a best friend who I communicate with very well as we share similar backgrounds. I talk to him at least once a week and mention somethin Erik has written. Tho he’s not so much into the blog so we are also quite different.

  3. Winding up with an understated positive through negatives is an art in Slavic languages. I got dizzy trying to think up my own example from my poor Russian, so I borrowed this example from Wikipedia: Неужели никто нигде никогда не видел ничего подобного? (‘Is it possible that no one has ever seen anything like that anywhere?’). Trying to translate this literally is baffling, something like “Not possible, no one, no where, never, has not seen, nothing.” If you count up the number of words that begin with nasal consonants (they look like “H” in Cyrllic), you find this sentence has six negatives. Oddly, it seems well suited to the Russian temperament.

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