There’s an interesting risk vs. reward calculation to be made when using sarcasm. If your audience gets it, it can feel like more is expressed, with more specificity, than speaking literally possibly could. If you miss though, you can end up with bewildered or frustrated listeners, eroding the flow of communication significantly, and probably ruining the timing of what would have obviously been the best joke ever. New research says that it’s still worth the risk though, as both the speaker and listener get some good mental exercise in the process.
People were asked to engage in one-sided sarcastic, sincere or neutral conversations. Test subjects then took a creativity assessment, revealing higher scores among people who had just been in a sarcastic conversation. As both speakers and listeners showed an uptick in creativity scores, it’s thought that the extra mental work of decoding a sarcastic statement to understand the underlying intent of the speaker stimulates the imagination and abstract thought centers in the brain. This then leaves people primed for creative thinking in a way that sincere (literal) communication does not.
A big caveat to all this is that creative thinkers might naturally use sarcasm more often than others. However, the fact that listeners showed benefit too seems to help diffuse that concern. It’s unlikely that the study managed to pair creative individuals repeatedly for both sides of the conversation.
Consider your audience
The potential downside to sarcastic communication is that when it causes confusion or misunderstandings it can create social rifts between people. The trick to handling these risks is appreciating the level of familiarity and trust between the speaker and listener. If mutual trust is already established, even unsuccessful sarcasm doesn’t seem to harm the relationship. On top of that, a trusting but confused listener can still show gains in creativity, meaning there’s little risk but nearly guaranteed reward for such a conversation. This goes against popular notions that sarcasm is only corrosive in any setting, and instead points to using it as a communication tool in appropriate contexts.
My first grader said: My wife and I have been trying to define sarcasm for a while now, and occasionally our daughter will catch on and ask “are you being sarcastic?!” in a pleased tone of voice, which seems to agree with this study’s conclusions. She’s also been practicing with her own delivery, usually with obviously ridiculous statements like “this ice cream is the worst!” The accompanying smile usually makes it pretty fun, but this makes me realize we should stress that she not bring this up with her school-mates until she’s more sure they’ll get it.
Source: Go ahead, be sarcastic by Christina Pazzanese, Harvard Gazette