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“Yeah, right!

”: A Linguistic Analysis of Self-reported

Sarcastic Messages and Their Contexts

Patricia Rockwell

Department of Communication

University of Louisiana at Lafayette

Lafayette, LA

70504

par2323@louisiana.edu

Presented to the Language and Social Interaction Division of the Southern States

Communication Association at the annual convention, Dallas, TX,

April, 2006
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Abstract

A survey was conducted of 218 students and non-students regarding their use of sarcasm

and various other personality traits. One question on the survey asked respondents to

describe a sarcastic comment that they remembered making and why they remembered

making it. Of the 218 respondents, 73 produced usable responses to this question.

Respondents reported messages that exhibited more positive rather than negative

language, more other-directed than self-directed messages, and more teasing rather than

serious messages.
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“Yeah, right!”: A Linguistic Analysis of Self-reported

Sarcastic Messages and Their Contexts

Sarcasm is a linguistic phenomenon used by many speakers to express opinions of

something or someone--often negative opinions. Unlike other verbal behaviors, sarcasm

represents the opposite of what speakers actually mean. Speakers expect, in most cases,

for recipients to recognize this contradiction. The assumption by linguists regarding

sarcasm use is that speakers knowingly choose to use sarcasm to create a particular effect

and should be able to explain their reasoning for choosing sarcasm in any particular

situation or context if asked. This assumption may be premature. Are language users

actually aware of their own use of sarcasm? That is, can they recall instances in which

they used sarcasm? Do they know why they used sarcasm in any particular situation?

And if so, what language features prevail in their sarcastic messages? This study

attempted to answer these questions.

Recall of Sarcastic Messages

Survey questionnaires provide extensive data for social science researchers.

Survey respondents are often asked about their recollections of behaviors, attitudes, and

feelings. Typically, behavioral questions tap respondents’ memories of macro-level

behaviors. Sometimes, however, researchers query for more micro-level behaviors such

as specific instances of language use. Researchers in many fields have found that the

accuracy of behaviors determined through self-report data is often comparable to that

determined through observational or experimental means (Ghaderi & Scott, 2001;

Goodman, Meltzer, & Bailey, 2003; Sherbourne & Meredith, 1992).


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Researchers note, however, that certain types of behavior are more amenable to

investigation through retrospective self-report data. For instance, Benoit and Benoit

(1988) report that respondents are better able to remember verbal rather than nonverbal

behavior, and their own comments better than their partners’ comments. Thus, we should

expect that respondents will be able to report instances of sarcastic comments they have

made. Researchers also report that survey respondents are typically able to recall and

report their own attitudes and emotions (Metts, Sprecher, & Cupach, 1991). As sarcasm

use represents instances of speakers expressing their attitudes or emotions, we should

expect that survey respondents will be able to remember instances in which they have

used sarcasm to express these attitudes or emotions and what attitudes or emotions

prompted their sarcastic comments.

On the other hand, researchers report that survey respondents are more likely to

remember the general content of a message rather than the actual words (Benoit &

Benoit, 1988). One exception to this rule, however, is that respondents are likely to

remember actual wording of a remark that is recent (Ericsson & Simon, 1980). Thus,

respondents should be likely to remember sarcastic remarks that they have made recently.

Also, various confirmed heuristic biases may prevent respondents from accurately

recalling specific comments they may have made. For example, as sarcasm is generally

seen as a negative, insulting behavior, respondents may be reluctant to report their own

use of sarcasm because they may feel that it does not present a positive self-image

(“social desirability bias,” Crowne & Marlowe, 1960).


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Linguistic Features of Sarcasm

Researchers have investigated various linguistic features of sarcastic messages.

Verbal cues of sarcasm may be morphological, syntactic, lexical, or typographical

(Attardo et al., 2003). For example, Williams (1984) says that unusual wording and

vocabulary often accompany sarcasm. Rockwell (2004) found that sentence types of

sarcastic utterances were more often declarative than interrogative or imperative. One

researcher (Rastall, 2003) found that the pronoun “we” was often used in sarcastic

remarks such as “And how are we today?” This type of usage was most often seen as

sarcastic when used by an adult speaker to address another adult in the second perrson.

Valence, or the degree of positivity or negativity of a message is a major feature

of sarcasm. In most instances, a sarcastic comment is positively worded and the intent is

negative, such as “Great job!” said to someone who has done a terrible job (Gibbs, 2000).

It is possible, however, to produce sarcasm with a positive intent and negative language,

such as “You look awful!” to someone who looks especially nice. Needless to say, this

second form of sarcasm is much less prevalent due to the possibility of misunderstanding

and is typically used only in close relationships (Rockwell, 2005). Researchers have

labeled these two types of sarcasm (using positive words with negative intent and using

negative words with positive intent) in various ways: praise/blame (Anolli, Ciceri, &

Infantino, 2002; Knox, 1961), kind/blame (Anolli & Infantino, 1997); sarcasm/jocularity

(Gibbs, 2000), light/heavy (Leggitt & Gibbs, 2000), or ironic criticism/ironic insults

(Clift, 1999; Gibbs, 1999; Kreuz & Link, 2002; Oring, 1994; Pexman & Zvaigne, 2000).

Another common feature of sarcasm often analyzed by researchers involves the

target or victim of the sarcasm. Researchers consider whether the sarcastic comment is
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self-directed (self-deprecating) or other-directed (Ball, 1965). Some researchers (Ivanko,

Pexman, & Olineck, 2004) suggest that women are more likely to produce the self-

directed form of sarcasm and men are more likely to produce the other-directed form.

A third area of research into sarcastic messages involves the severity of the

remark. Many researchers have suggested that most sarcasm is light-hearted or teasing

(Gibbs, 2000), but others have noted that much sarcasm is highly destructive and

damaging to relationships (Anolli & Infantino, 1997; Leggitt & Gibbs, 2000).

Sarcasm is generally evaluative in content (Rockwell, 2004). That is, sarcastic

messages imply some sort of evaluation of something—often a person and often the

recipient of the remark. Evaluative comments about the weather are also prototypically

sarcastic: “Great weather we’re having!” or “Lovely weather!” Thus, the wording of

many sarcastic remarks involves evaluative terms such as “beautiful,” “wonderful,”

“great” or “excellent.” Because of the nature of sarcasm, these terms are often extremes

and often contain intense language. That is, sarcastic speakers are more likely to indicate

their sarcasm by using superlative adjectives and adverbs (e.g., “great,” “wonderful,” or

“really”) than they are to use more moderate terms (e.g., “nice,” “good” or “somewhat”)

(Kreuz & Roberts, 1995; Seto, 1998).

Method

A questionnaire was completed by 150 students in undergraduate communication

courses at a large southern university. These students were then offered extra credit to

solicit questionnaire responses from individuals they knew. This procedure brought in an

additional 68 questionnaires. The questionnaire contained numerous items about

sarcasm use and various personality traits which were used in another study. One open-
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ended question on the survey asked “Please describe a sarcastic comment that you

remember making. Tell why you remember making it.” This question was designed to

produce specific sarcastic comments and also to elicit something about the speaker’s

intent and the context of the comment.

Results

Of the 218 questionnaires returned (males = 87, females = 131), 55 respondents

did not answer this question. Of the 163 respondents who did answer the question, 73

produced responses that actually represented a sarcastic message. In some instances

responses were presented without rationale but were considered usable because the

context was implied (e.g. “Boy, are you a great driver!” suggests a comment made to

someone exhibiting poor driving behavior).

The 73 usable responses were examined for four features: language valence

(positivity versus negativity), self- versus other-directed language, teasing versus serious

language, and evaluative versus non-evaluative language. Regarding language valence or

whether the message exhibited criticism or praise, 69 of the 73 messages exhibited

sarcastic criticism; that is the statement used positive language to imply a negative intent.

Examples of these included: “’You did a wonderful parking job,’” said when I opened

the car door and stepped in a puddle,” or “You are the brains of this organization.” Of the

four messages that exhibited sarcastic praise (using negative language to imply positive

intent), two were produced by males and two by females. In one message, the speaker

“told a girl she was very fat. . . . She is actually svelte and gorgeous.” In a similar vein,

one speaker reported, “My mom is skinny, but she says she’s fat so one day I agreed with

her. I did it extremely sarcastically so that she’d stop complaining.” A female respondent
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said, “I was talking about a really attractive guy on TV and said he was not cute, but I did

think he was attractive.”

The next feature examined was whether the message was self- or other-directed.

Of the 73 messages evaluated, 67 were other-directed. Examples of these included: “Oh,

that was a genius remark!” or “You are so cool!” Of the six self-directed remarks, three

were produced by males and three were produced by females. Examples of these

included: “I made a mess by spilling my glass of tea and said, ‘That was smart,’” and

“Last night I went bowling and told my friends I was going pro (except I suck at

bowling).”

Another feature considered was the seriousness or severity of the context of the

message. Of the 73 comments, 62 involved teasing. Examples of these included:

“Someone hit the door frame and I said, ‘You know, there is a door right there.’” Or “I

told my friend how well she sang when she was trying to sing a song that she didn’t know

the words to.” Only two of the comments were considered to be serious in nature and

both were produced by females. These were: “Yesterday my fiancé filled out something

on the computer about his interests and it didn’t include me and I told him he was sweet

and made me feel warm inside,” and “Someone cut in front of me in a line and I said,

‘You go right ahead of me because you are much more important than I am!’” It is

possible that these two instances were intended as teasing, but as with all cases of

sarcasm, particularly written examples, it is often difficult to determine intent. In any

event, compared to the other comments, these two were deemed serious.

An examination of the evaluative terms used in the messages reported by the

respondents indicated that only 30 of the 73 comments used evaluative language.


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Examples of this include: “’Oh, that looks fabulous,’ to my boyfriend who was wearing

something totally inappropriate to go to a function,” or “’Nice shot, Sally!’ to a friend

who makes a bad shot in golf.” Comments using evaluative language, particularly those

exhibiting sarcastic criticism (positive words with negative intent) are easy to recognize

as they represent the typical sarcastic comment. Sarcastic comments that do not include

evaluative language are atypical and less easy to recognize. However, in this study, the

majority (43) of the 73 sarcastic comments conveyed the sarcastic intent without the use

of evaluative language: “’We should do this more often,’ when I wasn’t having fun

Saturday night with my friends” or “Someone said I was being mean to them and I said,

‘Sure, anytime, just call me.’” Obviously, many respondents were able to remember and

record these more atypical forms of sarcasm.

It is also instructive to examine some of the responses that were made that did not

meet the criteria for sarcasm (90), to determine how speakers and listeners may be

confused about the concept of sarcasm. For instance, some respondents considered any

nasty, negative comment to be sarcastic: “You really need to stop letting things blow

your head up because you’re not that cute,” or “I coach a girls’ softball team and during a

game I yelled at a girl jogging to the base, ‘My grandmother can run faster than that.’”

Some respondents confused sarcasm with lying: “I told someone that it was good to see

them and they looked good and I didn’t mean it,” or “My roommate told me he lost a lot

of weight and I told him he looked skinny but he doesn’t.” However, the vast majority of

90 responses that were included in the non-sarcastic category were included because it

was impossible to determine by the wording of the comment itself or the context if it was

sarcasm (e.g., “My friend was talking about her wedding being postponed and I said
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something sarcastic to make her laugh,” or “I just take what people say and throw it back

in their face.”)

Responses in this study may exhibit certain features because when respondents

are asked to remember a sarcastic comment they made, they may be more likely to

remember a comment that represents a more typical type of sarcasm. This may also

account for the fact that many of the reported remarks concerned intelligence (“You are

so smart!” or “Way to go, Einstein!”) and beauty (“You look fabulous!” or “That’s

attractive!”), topics frequently associated with sarcasm.

Discussion

This study allowed a close inspection of actual sarcastic remarks as reported by

their producers. Of course, with any self-report data, caution must be taken, as

respondents may consciously or unconsciously present self-report data in a positive light

(Hofstee, 1994). Even so, many respondents in this study reported using sarcasm with

negative intent and often presented themselves in a less than positive light.

Researchers (Koehler, Brenner, Liberman, & Tversky, 1996) have also found that

people tend to be overconfident is estimating difficult behaviors, which certainly

describes sarcasm. It is gratifying to note that many respondents were able to recall

sarcastic comments they had made and the context that prompted the comment. Many,

however, were unable or unwilling to report a sarcastic comment. And many who did

report a comment did not report comments that represented actual sarcasm. These results

verify the intellectual sophistication required to produce and recognize sarcasm.

Although many responses were common and immediately recognizable (“Yeah,

right”) as sarcasm, some respondents presented instances of unusually worded sarcasm


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produced in unique circumstances (“’Why don’t you throw your body out of a moving

car!’ said to drivers in different cars trying to converse at a stoplight” or “’I’m in AA’ said

to a bartender at a pub”). From a numerical standpoint, the sarcastic comments reported

exhibited more positive language than negative language (that is, more sarcastic criticism

than sarcastic praise), more other-directed than self-directed messages, and more teasing

remarks than serious remarks. Less than half of the sarcastic messages reported,

however, utilized evaluative language (Great job!” or “Nicely done!”) as was expected.

This was surprising. However, in many of these cases, evaluation was implied. For

example, “Are you coming this year or next?” implies the target is very slow and “I’m

having a ball,” implies that the speaker is not having a great time. These last remarks

may be considered evaluative even though they do not include any evaluative adjectives

or adverbs.

The results of this study expand the picture of sarcastic speakers and how those

speakers use language to convey their sarcastic intent. Sarcasm represents a difficult

verbal behavior, and many speakers who attempt to use it, fail to accomplish their task.

However, some speakers are creative and invent unique, effective, sarcastic “zingers.”

We can learn much from studying these speakers and how they make sarcastic language

work for them in conversation.


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