Sarcasm in the English language can often be hard to grasp for non-native speakers. That is because understanding and using sarcasm requires a strong understanding of both written and spoken English, the ability to read between the lines, and the capacity to correctly interpret the tone and context in which something is said.
However, when used correctly, sarcasm can be a great communication tool. Using sarcasm in conversation can help you project confidence and add some much-needed humor to your speech. It also lets you connect with native English speakers better and get your point across in a fun, engaging way.
That being said, using sarcasm in conversation may not always be appropriate. It can be especially off-putting in certain formal and polite settings. Using sarcasm in such situations can be counterproductive unless handled wisely. Therefore, it is necessary to thoroughly understand what sarcasm constitutes to use it effectively.
What is sarcasm?
Sarcasm is the subtle use of remarks to convey the exact opposite of what you literally mean. It is used as an instrument of mockery, insult, or criticism. For novice English speakers, sarcastic comments can be especially difficult to identify or relate to. For instance, when someone says, “This is such a great team,” sarcastically, they actually mean quite the opposite. A more complex instance of sarcasm is when someone calls an underperformer the “sharpest tool in the shed”. ‘The sharpest tool in the shed’ is a common English phrase used as a compliment to refer to someone who is the best or most accomplished in a group. But when the same phrase is used sarcastically, it is often to single someone out who is either not so bright or not performing as expected.
What’s important to remember here is that sarcasm heavily depends on the tone of voice and inflection of the speaker for its effect. Native speakers signal their use of sarcasm by using a slightly altered tone of voice. For instance, if someone says “what a great day!” in a cheery or upbeat tone, they’re likely feeling good inside and mean what they say. However, if the same thing is said in a mildly annoyed or complaining tone, a native English speaker will immediately understand that the speaker is being sarcastic.
Marvel movies are known for their use of sarcastic exchanges between lead characters to drive humour within the audience
Types of sarcasm
Sarcasm can be classified into four broad types depending on the usage and intent of the phrases. These are:
Self deprecating sarcasm is used to make fun of oneself in an attempt to make light of a serious situation or a mistake you might be hesitant to address head-on. It is generally used by native speakers to break awkward silences and come back from difficult social situations using light humor. For example, let’s say someone is talking to a few friends at a party and they accidentally knock a glass over, spilling the drink all over the floor. They might say something like, “Now wasn’t that just charming?” to poke fun at themselves.
Deadpan sarcasm is a type of sarcasm that aims to use ‘dry humor’ for comedic effect. Dry humor is humor delivered with a neutral expression and almost no intonation, which can make it harder for foreign speakers to understand. The only way you can tell someone is being sarcastic here is by reading the context well. For example, if someone messes up a task and their colleague says “Well, that was a job well done” with a neutral expression, you can assume they’re being sarcastic because of the situation.
Unlike the other types, brooding sarcasm is almost exclusively used to express anger and frustration, albeit in a palatable way. When someone uses brooding sarcasm, they say a seemingly upbeat thing with a frustrated expression. For example, if someone gets drenched by a sudden rainshower, they might sarcastically assert “I guess it’s always sunny in Philly!”
Juvenile sarcasm is the type of sarcasm used to make fun of someone, often in a hurtful and condescending manner. Using this type of sarcasm can make the other person feel hurt and offended, which is why foreign speakers should usually steer clear of it. An example of juvenile sarcasm can be saying, “Sure, talk slower, I’ve got all day” to someone with a bad stammer.
Tips for using sarcasm correctly
As we’ve seen so far, sarcasm can be a tough nut to crack for someone new to English. Being even slightly off the mark in the use of sarcasm can be embarrassing at best and scandalous at worst. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you learn to use sarcasm in everyday conversation.
Listen to native speakers use sarcasm
There is a very fine line that separates the related concepts of sarcasm, irony, and satire, and it’s understandably easy for non-native speakers to get confused between the three. The best way to understand what actually counts as sarcasm is to listen to native speakers use it in everyday situations. Pay particular attention to the speaker’s tone of voice and body language when they are being sarcastic. You can watch popular TV sitcoms to better understand how sarcasm can be used in a light and humorous way. We recommend you binge watch Friends to familiarize yourself with the king of sarcasm– Chandler Bing!
Always mind the context
While sarcasm can be a great way of lightening up a room and making everyone feel comfortable, you should be aware that it can sometimes be inappropriate to make a sarcastic comment in certain situations. This is especially true in official or formal settings where you are expected to be civil and courteous towards everyone present. It might also be inappropriate to make a sarcastic comment about someone or something the person you are speaking with is sensitive to. Finally, no matter what the situation is, it’s always preferable to use your tone and body language to full effect to convey your sarcasm.
Try mixing sarcasm with idioms
While this might seem difficult at first, using idioms and common phrases sarcastically can help you build confidence and display your advanced linguistic abilities to native speakers. As with the ‘sharpest tool in the shed’ example, the idea here is to use a phrase to say the opposite of what it really means. You should, of course, be confident of what the phrase actually means to be able to use it sarcastically.
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