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Think People Always Know When You Are Being Sarcastic? Don't Assume

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: what do you call it when someone says one thing but means the opposite, trying to be funny or biting?

RS: Are you being sarcastic?

AA: Yes -- well, actually, no. I wasn't being sarcastic.

RS: Yeah, right.

KATHERINE RANKIN: "There are really two different ways to understand sarcasm."

RS: Katherine Rankin is a neuropsychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and she's done brain research into the ways people detect sarcasm.

KATHERINE RANKIN: "One of them is based on the content of what somebody says. If there's a hurricane outside and you look out the window and comment to your friend 'Hey, nice weather we're having,' everyone knows you're being sarcastic, regardless of what your face or your voice does.

"However, there's another way of picking up sarcasm, and that's the tone of voice going up and down and it's the way one is rolling one's eyes. Those are what we call the paralinguistic aspect of sarcasm. When we look at kids, it turns out five-year-olds, or around five-year-olds, can pick it up when you're being sarcastic and you let your tone of voice go up and down in a really exaggerated way.

"What we call the fundamental frequency of the voice changes. You have longer pauses in sarcastic speech, that sort of thing, whereas the facial cues of sarcasm, really don't -- no study has actually been able to show what the distinct facial cues of sarcasm are. I still believe there are some, but so far it hasn't been adequately been studied to really delineate a clear facial profile. So far it's just the voices."

AA: Kate Rankin works with patients who have trouble reading social cues because of neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer's.

RS: She has been researching how the brain recognizes, or fails to recognize, sarcasm -- for example, in the videos of two people interacting.

KATHERINE RANKIN: "There's one video that I give where a subordinate -- it's a work setting, and a subordinate walks in the room and says to his boss, 'You know, I can't take that class you asked me to take. I'm going to be too busy to take it.' And the boss is very sarcastic with him, and she says things like 'You probably are just too BUSY, you couldn't FIT IT IN. I have PLENTY of time to do this,' and that sort of thing.

"And that's very different from if she said 'I have plenty of time to do this. You probably didn't have time. I gave it to you on short notice.' That would be a sincere way to say it. But if she says 'I didn't give you enough TIME, didn't give you enough NOTICE, did I?' she's saying it sarcastically. So that's really the difference, the paralinguistic cues."

RS: "How can these visual and facial cues help, do you think, help people who speak English as a foreign language better understand American English?"

KATHERINE RANKIN: "Well, I think that it's tough because I think in American English there is something that's called a dry sense of humor. And I think folks that have a dry sense of humor, or even we could call it a dry sense of sarcastic communication, will be being sarcastic based entirely on context. They'll be making statements that are contrary to what they really believe or what is really true.

"It's a little easier when folks give you the paralinguistic cues. And I think it would be very, very good for anybody's who's not an English speaker to listen to those cues and notice if somebody slows down in the way they speak, if their voice suddenly goes up and down in a wide range, if there are long pauses in what they say. Think more carefully and attend more carefully to what the person is
saying, and even ask 'Are you being sarcastic? Do you mean that?' and they'll usually clarify."

AA: "They'll say 'No, I'm not' in which case they mean 'Yes, I am' [laughter]"

KATHERINE RANKIN: "And hopefully they'll roll their eyes at you so you know ... "

AA: "Now do you consider yourself ordinarily a sarcastic person?"

KATHERINE RANKIN: "You know, I try not to be, but I'm definitely a part of my culture and I do speak in a sarcastic way sometimes, particularly with those that I'm close to and folks I know will understand me."

AA: "Well, do you find since you did this study that maybe you're being a little more careful about your use of sarcasm?"

KATHERINE RANKIN: "I am. I realize that a lot of people in a lot of different phases of life, either because they're maybe older or are not part of the mainstream American culture, or maybe English learners, that they don't understand sarcasm. They don't catch it. And so I've realized that I need to be careful and not necessarily use it and assume that folks know that I'm being sarcastic."

RS: "And how would you use your findings in any practical, medical way?"

KATHERINE RANKIN: "Well, it certainly does help to be able to tell patients' families that there's been some research done, that folks just aren't going to catch it when you're being sarcastic. They used to understand it, they used to catch when you were being sarcastic, but you need to be more careful now. They will take what you're saying at face value, so don't use sarcasm with them and expect them to understand. So it just helps improve the lines of communication in families when there is a patient with one of these diseases."

RS: Katherine Rankin is a neuropsychologist at the University of California, San Francisco. And that's WORDMASTER for this week.

AA: Archives are at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.