What is Sarcasm?


Sarcasm means to taunt or ridicule someone in an ironic way — either for comedic effect or express passive aggressiveness or slyness. In the paragraphs that follow, this relationship is explored at length. But first a bit of etymology. The word ‘sarcasm’ comes from the Greek words “sark,” meaning “flesh” and “asmos,” which means “tear or rip,” so it means ‘ripping flesh’- even the transliteration is to be construed as offensive.

In contrast, could your everyday conversations benefit from you being straight-forward and sincere? To state the obvious, people say the opposite of what they mean more often than not, but can it affect the relationships you build with others — especially when you can’t predict how it would be received? The psychological elements behind sarcasm might be a guide to that question.

Before we dive in, a definition should be a good starting point. Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony, designed to irritate, insult, or exhibit exasperation. While categorically, it is ‘irony’ but sarcasm is closely tied to people’s intentions. In other words, it’s irony that’s never serendipitous but always intentional.

Sarcasm Can Teach You Problem Solving

In his book ‘Talk is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation, and the Evolution of Language,’ the author John Haiman notes, “Sarcasm is practically the primary language in modern society.” Sarcasm promotes creativity for those for interlocutors because the brain engages centers that aren’t otherwise engaged when receiving earnest input — a thought curveball as it were. Researchers have found that following snide or sarcastic statements, test subjects had certain brain areas present electrical activity. 

The study then suggests that higher activity can sharpen your problem-solving faculties, further demonstrated by students subjected to customer service complaints. The use of irony to cloak an expression of contempt isn’t always ‘crunches for your brain’ since it can leave lasting imprints on your social interactions — some often unforeseen.

The Figurative ‘Nuts and Bolts’ of Sarcastic Speech

A boy with sarcastic face

Much like other social conventions, sarcasm might sometimes fly under the radar without getting caught — especially in written communication when you don’t have cues such as body language or facial expressions. In a similar vein, the more you’re exposed to it (in the content you’re consuming or in everyday conversions), the easier it becomes for you to identify it.

Circling back to the lack of cues, the indicators themselves can be quite universal — particularly in informal settings. Most adults pick them up at an early age (around five to six years). However, some people can’t tell literalism and sarcasm apart (more on that in a few).

It Can be Corrosive

Since it can be offensive towards a person by design, sarcasm isn’t always harmless. You may very well disguise hostility as sarcastic humor, which puts the addressee in a no-win position. Case in point, a derogatory comment followed up with a ‘just kidding’ even if you weren’t kidding. The reactions you can expect differ wildly anywhere from discomfort to your child’s emotional well-being.

Sarcasm can also be a medium of inspiring offense or insecurity. To quantify it on a rating scale, participants of a study were offered literal and sarcastic comments for something traditionally accepted as ‘negative.’

Upon hearing the literal statement, ‘It’s unhealthy that you have no concern for your lungs’ and the sarcastic remark ‘It’s great that you have good concern for your lung health,’ the recipients claim that the latter is far more ‘biting’ and impolite.

Here’s the Fascinating Neuroscience

Researchers have managed to isolate the segment of our brains that processes sarcasm. Sagittal stratum is a bundle of nerve fibers responsible for collecting social stimuli — facial expressions, tonality, body — and then flagging sarcasm.

The discovery comes from the observations that specific brain injuries can lead to a patient struggling to, or often lose the ability to detect sarcasm. Brain damage focused at the right hemisphere of the brain is strongly associated with this unique condition, where the sagittal stratum resides. Interestingly enough, the ‘sagittal stratum’ isn’t the only area linked with sarcasm.

Another research has found that many areas other than sagittal stratum help in understanding sarcasm. Researchers use functional Magnetic resonance imaging fMRI technique to monitor the brain activity while testing the patient’s level of understanding sarcasm. The findings indicate that strokes which leave the right part of the brain injured disrupt the nerve nexus from carrying the audiovisual information, keeping the patient from discerning sarcastic sentence pairs.

Suffice it to say, our brains have evolved with a dedicated region to distinguish between subtleties of speech.

How Do We Learn It?

As briefly touched on above, children don’t have an innate grasp on sarcasm for the first 5-6 years. And even once they develop a perception of it, they cannot connect the dots between sarcasm and its accompanying humor. Only at 8-9 years, kids start appreciating the sarcastic overtones in jokes.

Two leading theories result from how young children come to the realization: literal first account and interactive account. The former claims that children interpret the literal meaning first and find it does not fit in context, and switch to the sarcastic version, while the latter predicts that children skip over the literal sense.

The same experiment used to determine precisely how we learn sarcasm also demonstrates that kids who can appreciate and detect sarcastic language, tend to have higher scores on empathy tests. What does it translate into? Being empathetic is crucial for understanding sarcasm in speech.

Watch Out for the Short-fuse

The neuroscientific and psychological mumbo jumbo aside, it’s common sense that some people are more prone to anger than others. And to an excitable person, sarcastic speech can be aggravating. Now when met with someone passive-aggressive — or someone who has sarcasm as an aspect of their personality — it won’t be a stretch that some friction or downright conflict highlights their interaction.

Sarcasm Can Affect Your Relationships

It’s easier to be sarcastic to people you’re already close to if you’re trying to communicate playfulness, and you are positive it won’t be construed as to mean or hurtful. And because of that, sarcastic speech is more common in close relationships than with strangers or even acquaintances.

Based on the studies cited so far, there is a distinct connection that sarcasm can spark insecurity, suspicion, and miscommunication — not merely for the interaction in question, but possible future ones as well. Say, a compliment might be mistaken for sarcasm based on similar previous experience. When stemming from cruel intentions, this satirical irony becomes a channel for passive aggressiveness and anger. Instead of opting for healthier outlets for processing anger, if it’s incessant and relentless, it takes the form of bullying and verbal or emotional abuse, which would be detrimental to your partner and the health of your relationship.

The more often you sprinkle it in your conversations, the higher the risk that it might not be treated as light-hearted banter. This frequently results in arguments between partners — which left unresolved and unchecked creates a magnified strain on their relationships.


Sarcasm, while a way to hone your problem-solving, is also a device for ill-timed humor that can malign relationships if it becomes an issue. You might wish to pause for a moment and rethink the next time you wish to communicate using this rhetorical device.