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

Your friend writes that a first date “…could not have gone better”. She even posts a status update saying “my date is absolutely fantastic.” Was it true love or a fiasco? If you can’t tell, you are not alone. Sarcasm is hard to interpret in written form and even sometimes in person. mail.com explains why - and helps you do better.

Why is it so hard to understand sarcasm in writing?

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 written 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.
Luckily, mail.com can help you understand and express sarcasm correctly:

  1. Three ways to detect sarcasm in writing
  2. Sarcasm in professional correspondence
  3. Signaling sarcasm in texts
  4. Do emojis really work?
  5. How can I convey sarcasm in text?
Young woman wearing striped shirt holds smartphone in one hand and coffee cup in other
Young woman wearing striped shirt holds smartphone in one hand and coffee cup in other

Sarcasm is even harder to detect than we think

Part of the problem is that people believe they can communicate more effectively by text 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.

Three ways to detect sarcasm in writing

It can be very difficult to detect sarcastic writing. We have three ways for you to (hopefully) identify and detect sarcasm in writing.
  1. Are they adding more letters than necessary? Adding multiple letters to different words and phrases are a telling sign of a sarcastic tone and text. An example of this can be “Ohh Nooooo,” as opposed to the latter “Oh no.”
  2. Are they using hyperbole? Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement or claim not meant to be taken literally. For sarcastic writing, this works by using more intense adjectives to display the sarcastic writing. The hyperbole would indicate sarcasm as the adjective of choice conflict with the situation at hand. An example of this would be “I am such a genius, I got an F on my final exam!” 
  3. Are there references to well-known events or pop culture? References are also comedic gold, as it is how many comedians land their best jokes because such references are based on  shared knowledge. When it comes to writing sarcastic texts, emails, and social media posts you can use common knowledge references. An example of this is when someone asks you a question that is so obvious it would be kind of insulting to answer it genuinely ;). Say for instance your hair was brown yesterday and today you show up to work and it is hot pink (I love it!). Someone immediately asks you, “did you do something different with your hair?” and your sarcastic response reference something to pop culture or general knowledge (depending on your audience) - for example, “Does a wolf howl at the moon?”
Avoid sarcasm in professional correspondence

So, if the science tells us anything, it’s to steer clear of sarcasm in our professional endeavors and 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 texts 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.

Are emojis good for communicating 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.

How can I convey sarcasm in text?

What if you don’t want to rely on emojis and hashtags? Your best bet is to be extremely careful in your choice of words and consider these five points:
  1. Know your audience. Understanding the target audience will allow you to tailor your sarcasm writing to the correct audience. It is the same strategy authors and comedians use to make sure their content reaches and, more importantly, is understood by their target audience. 
  2. Informal tone. You should always write your sarcasm in an informal tone. Obvious sarcasm doesn’t leave the reader wondering, thinking, and ultimately feeling like a genius for understanding what you meant. There is no fun in simply confusing people! When writing a sarcastic text, the key is to ensure the reader will understand the real message hidden within your sarcastic genius. 
  3. Originality. Your message, your text, and your sarcasm. Take ownership of your clever and witty thinking. Don’t venture too far into the creative abyss though; sometimes the best sarcasm in text comes from simplicity. If you overdo it, you could be ignored by your recipient. 
  4. Why are you being sarcastic? Of course it is simple to say, “I want my sarcasm to be understood.” But be sure to think about how the receiver will interact with your message. For instance when you use sarcastic criticism that is meant to express ironic humor, you do not want it to come across as too aggressive or threatening. 
  5. Read your writing out loud! This advice holds true not just in the business world, but in your personal texts as well. The power of simply re-reading a sarcastic text before sending or posting is often underestimated, yet it can make all the difference. Your goal here is to ensure that your intended sarcasm comes across clearly and almost effortlessly.

Did you find this post interesting? We look forward to your feedback below. /srs

This article first appeared on February 20, 2022, and was updated on December 15, 2022
Images: 1&1/Shutterstock

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