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."
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.
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."
Kate Rankin works with patients who have trouble reading social cues
because of neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer's.
She has been researching how the brain recognizes, or fails to
recognize, sarcasm -- for example, in the videos of two people
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?"
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.
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?"
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?"
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?"
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 voanews.com/wordmaster. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.