Ever tried being sarcastic, only to have everyone fail to understand your sarcasm? Could there be some unwritten rule decreeing the limits of sarcasm, a clause of causticness, a law of lampoonery, a statute of satire, wisecrack writ, a… okay, okay, I’ll stop before I get a synonym subpoena.
My point: effective sarcasm is a sliding scale. At one end, the obvious, schmaltzy schlock represented by a quote from the Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy – “Oh, a sarcasm detector. That’s a really useful invention” – and at the other end, a head-scratchingly placid statement that is barely distinguishable as an opinion, let alone sarcasm – the phrase “You certainly have a vibrant personality” spoken to a yelling madman, for instance. In this essay, I hope to explain a host of different points along this scale, and how to identify them.
“But wait,” you might well say. “Isn’t it impossible to convey an accurate definition of differing types of sarcasm through the written word? After all, vocal intonation is a huge factor in sarcasm.”
To this I reply, “Why, yes it is, reader with a strangely detailed and relevant observation!” Sadly, this element of the art will be lost to our discussion today, but in compensation, I’ll take the next paragraph to detail the vocal element of sarcasm.
Sarcasm, as it is typically understood, involves emphasis on certain words that are clearly out of place (“Well, that’s a normal approach,” for instance). This emphasis is often a higher pitch, and often the highest at the center of the word. Much of the subtler sarcasm, however, is spoken with no emphasis, designed to sound much more reasonable and, thereby, subtle. That’s all you need to know. It’s sooooooooo much information.
Here’s the scale:
1. Cheesy and obvious sarcasm.
Generally present in tweenage kids, idiots, and eighties sitcoms, this form of sarcasm is the basest. No one can miss it, and it seldom makes any point worth making. The actual statement given is always the exact opposite of the actual point intended.
Example: “That’s sooooo original! I really care about your opinion. I’m definitely not being a tooootal idiot right now.”
Level of acceptability: Never, unless you’re pretending to be an idiot for some reason. Even then, there are better ways.
2. Sarcasm training wheels.
As clear and bracing as a quick slap to the face, this type of sarcasm is all about making sure the target gets the point as efficiently as possible. Unlike the approach of cheesy sarcasm, the stated point doesn’t have to be the polar opposite of the intended point, though it should be close.
Example: “Thanks, grandma. I really needed a stuffed giraffe at this point in my life.”
Level of acceptability: Only when making a stupid joke, when angry and yelling insults at someone, or when speaking to those who require a little aid in getting your point, like great-aunts. As all of those situations are not ideal for the use of any sarcasm, you should steer clear of this one.
3. Normal sarcasm.
The most common type, normal sarcasm requires only slight vocal intonation and a steady, even-minded sense of the joke. It’s best among friends who understand you, and your preferences. Present but not garish; Subtle but not invisible. Little to no inflection.
Example: “You’re not out running for a half hour as per your resolution? Shocker.”
Level of acceptability: Normal. That’s why it’s called that in the title.
4. Subtle sarcasm.
Common in the English, this form of sarcasm is sly and quiet. Do not emphasize: if anything, de-emphasize, so that your flat voice carries the emotional depth of a paper doll. Context is everything.
Example: “I say, that wind we’ve been having is certainly a hearty bit of weather, eh?”
Level of acceptability: You bet. People who complain that they “don’t get it” can be ignored. This is a form of humor that any connoisseur will appreciate.
5. Ninja sarcasm.
Much like Atlantis, a bad episode of Sherlock and unicorns, ninja sarcasm has never been directly observed and may not in fact exist. Statements are made in full honesty, with no hidden message. It’s utterly similar to normal language, only employed by the most passive of passive aggressors.
Example: None. It’s impossible to provide an example, much like it is impossible to provide a picture of an invisibility cloak at work.
Level of acceptability: invalid. You’re playing with fire here. Once you start, you may not stop. No one, including you, will notice the insidious work of the ninja sarcasm.