Why is it hard to detect sarcasm in emails and texts?

Your friend emails that a first date “…could not have gone better”. Was it true love or a fiasco? If you can’t tell, you are not alone. Sarcasm is notoriously hard to interpret in emails and texts.
Young woman wearing striped shirt holds smartphone in one hand and coffee cup in other
Not sure if that message is sarcastic? You’re not alone!
mail.com explains why – and helps you do better.

Why is it so hard to understand sarcasm in emails?

Over the decades, studies have tried to pinpoint just how much of our communication depends on the actual words, and how much on nonverbal factors such as body language or tone. Although the results vary, most conclude that more than 70 percent of communication is non-verbal, with some putting the number as high as 93 percent.
In the case of sarcasm, we could say that non-verbal cues communicate 100 percent of the meaning – because after all, the very definition of sarcasm is when the speaker says the opposite of what they mean, usually to express humor or be funny in a critical way. They signal their sarcasm by using a distinct tone of voice and often a facial expression as well, and the context of the situation can also signal whether they are being sarcastic or sincere.

For example, imagine you ask your husband how his presentation went and he replies “Just great”. Without hearing his tone of voice or seeing his face, would you know if the presentation was good or bad?

This is why sarcasm poses such a significant challenge in email communications: We have no intonation or body language to help us and we are often missing context clues as well. And now that texting and social media have joined emails to make up a significant portion of our daily communications, the struggle to interpret written sarcasm has only gotten worse.

Sarcasm is even harder to detect than we think

Part of the problem is that people believe they can communicate more effectively by email than they actually do. When we are writing, we have a hard time putting ourselves in the reader’s shoes and seeing our communication from their perspective. After all, we know if we are being serious or funny.

You may think that since your friends or family know you so well, they’ll be sure to pick up on your jokes. But even your friends may have trouble correctly interpreting your sarcasm, according the a study published six years ago: “Findings suggest that reliance upon friendship and context […] to interpret emotion in email is ineffective, and sometimes detrimental.” In other words, our closeness to a person does not make them any better in gauging the emotional tone of our messages – and feelings can get hurt.

Avoid sarcasm in professional emails

So if the science tells us anything, it’s to steer clear of sarcasm in our work emails at all costs. After all, when the people closest to us can’t always interpret our meaning correctly, why take the risk of offending your boss or an important client? Don’t leave yourself open to their (mis-)interpretation. The odds are high that sarcasm will be perceived as mean, condescending, or at the very least unprofessional.

Pro tip: Read important business emails out loud before you send – not only will this help you catch that last typo, but you will see if the meaning of any of your statements is being conveyed solely by your tone of voice. If you feel a statement could be misinterpreted or cause offense without your nonverbal cues, it’s a good sign that you should rephrase or provide more context.

Signaling sarcasm in your emails and texts

Fortunately, for almost as long as people have been struggling with ambiguity in their digital communications, others have been developing ways to help. As email use soared in the 1980s, people came up with abbreviations (like “LOL”), emoticons (like :-P), and later, emojis to signal their intent. More recently Twitter has given us #sarcasm, while other online forums make use of tone indicators. For example, typing “/s” at the end of a sentence – “That was a great use of my time /s” – indicates sarcasm, while adding “/srs” shows you are being serious.

Emojis: An effective way to communicate sarcasm

Are such signals effective sarcasm detectors? In another 2016 study, researchers looked at how the writer of an email could make their intent clearer to the recipient. They had students read and try to interpret the meaning of messages like “I see your diet is going well”. They included different punctuation and emoticons, such as:
  • I see your diet is going well.
  • I see your diet is going well!
  • I see your diet is going well…
  • I see your diet is going well ;-)
  • I see your diet is going well :-P
The researchers found that the emoticons and the ellipsis (the three dots) made the message read as sarcastic, whereas the exclamation mark and the period increased the chances of it being seen as sincere.  

So before you fire off an email to your BFF about her diet, you might consider making use of some sarcasm emojis to make sure she’s not offended by your teasing. As for your work email, unfortunately emojis are still not considered terribly professional. In such cases, it’s better to just say what you mean and mean what you say.

If you found this post interesting, why not leave us some feedback below? We love hearing from you /srs

Images: 1&1/Shutterstock

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