Home Family & Relationship Why Sarcasm Can Seriously Damage a Relationship

Why Sarcasm Can Seriously Damage a Relationship

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KEY POINTS

  • Research indicates that sarcasm, due to its inherent ambiguity and contradiction between spoken words and nonverbal cues, can lead to misunderstandings and be perceived as impolite.
  • For sarcasm and ironic comments to be correctly interpreted, listeners need to be attuned to the speaker’s tone of voice and body language. Misinterpretation can negatively impact relationships.
  • Direct and clear communication is generally more effective, especially in maintaining positive relationships, as it avoids the potential pitfalls of sarcasm and irony.



Sarcasm and irony are forms of humour that involve a discrepancy between spoken words and nonverbal cues. Research on the use of these forms of humour suggests that they can lead you to be perceived as rude. Stick to direct communication with your partner, and leave the extreme sarcasm to the comedians. Of the many forms of humour, from physical comedy to punning, a good joke can certainly lighten the mood. You might poke fun at your romantic partner about a silly mistake, and both of you have a good laugh. But humour can also take on a less innocent form.

The nature of sarcasm

Sarcasm derives its humorous effect by the contradiction it presents between the words a person uses and the meaning those words are intended to have. If you’ve ever had someone say “nice job” to you when they clearly meant the opposite, you know that it’s easy to feel a bit confused. Although people in romantic relationships feel they can get away with this type of teasing, new research suggests why it’s best to think twice before you go down the sarcastic road.

Sarcasm, teasing, and politeness

According to research, sarcasm is a “conversational implicature” in which speakers use context and nonverbal cues to communicate an intended meaning beyond the words themselves. These cues are intended to avoid misunderstandings, such as the “nice job” example. You might realise that you’re the target of sarcasm if the speaker rolls their eyes or if you, in fact, realise that the job wasn’t nice at all (such as if you drop a plateful of food).

Another way to look at sarcasm, as this example illustrates, is as a form of “ironic criticism” that has aggressive overtones. If the target of the comment correctly interprets its meaning, they will feel insulted. The words are nice but the sentiment is not. In teasing, a person’s words are negative (“You’re just a mess, aren’t you?”) but the intent is positive. If you interpret this interaction in a positive way, you won’t feel insulted and may be more likely to share a laugh. Both forms of humour rely on the correct interpretation of a speaker’s meaning by the listener. However, because of the “conversational implicature,” it’s also possible that the intended meaning completely escapes the listener. The words alone from a sarcastic comment will seem polite, and those from the ironic comment will seem rude.

For a humorous comment to have its effect, the listener needs to be tuned into the speaker’s nonverbal channel, or not only will the joke be missed, but the relationship can suffer.

When does sarcasm make its mark, and on whom?

Researchers were interested in investigating the role of prosody in sarcasm, meaning the tone of voice a speaker uses to convey a message. When you are trying to convey a meaning opposite to the one your words signify, you can exaggerate your intonation, put emphasis on certain words, and shift your tone of voice. Other researchers have investigated irony and sarcasm through the use of prosody, showing some of the ways that these forms of humour can enrich your life. However, the downside to all of this is when you come across as rude or insensitive. This study provides guidance in figuring out when to be sarcastic and with whom.

The so-called “Gricean maxim” of communication states that “conversation partners follow rules that lead to a mutual understanding of what is being said”. These rules include being concise, truthful, informative, and relevant. Sarcasm flouts this rule because its ambiguity and internal contradictions can confuse the listener, unless the listener is in on the joke too.

A lifetime of experience in joke-telling, ribbing, and good-natured kidding should lead people, as they get older, to be less likely to misinterpret sarcasm and irony, or to feel offended by their use. But researchers propose that the exact opposite should happen. Older adults are more likely to take words for their literal meaning either because they don’t hear all the prosody cues or misinterpret the nonverbal signals. As a result, sarcasm should seem more polite and irony more rude than is true for younger adults. Other influences on sarcasm perception include gender identity, race, socioeconomic status, culture, and geographical differences.

Study findings on sarcasm perception

The purpose of the study was to partition out these influences on sarcasm perception to find out who’s most likely to be offended by a speaker’s violation of those Gricean rules. The research team recruited 278 British and American participants, divided into three age groups, also classified as female, male, and gender nonconforming. The experimental stimuli presented the online participants with four video scenarios, all involving a woman asking a man if he would like to try one of the cookies she just made. The two literal responses in the videos were “Mmm… they look so good,” and “They don’t look very appetising.” The sarcastic and teasing responses were the same. A fifth response was the prosocial lie, claiming that they look good.

The non-verbal and prosody cues accompanying these responses were the key to the sarcastic and ironic intents, including passive/aggressive intonation and eyerolls. Teasing, in contrast, used light-hearted tones and incorporated laughter. You can practise saying each response yourself with each of these meanings to give yourself an idea of how these distinctions play out.

Participants saw 50 vignettes that fit each of the communication conditions, and rated each one on a 1–5 politeness scale. They also completed surveys to determine their communication preferences in the use of sarcasm and conversational indirectness.

The findings showed that sarcastic responses received lower politeness scores among all participants. Teasing, conversely, received higher politeness ratings. Men regarded sarcasm and bluntness as more polite than did women, suggesting that males are “more comfortable with confrontational communication.”

With respect to ageing, and in contrast to the authors’ hypotheses, older people did not lose their conversational abilities. Like the younger participants, they rated positive statements as more polite, which means that, in the words of the authors, “individuals of all age groups possess an ability to discern the subtleties of irony and prosocial lies and accurately interpret the intended non-verbal cues.” Interestingly, the older participants thought blunt (negative) and prosocial lies were less polite than teasing and literal positive statements. In other words, it is best not to be outright negative or tell a white lie to an older adult.

Perhaps to no surprise, the Brits in the study thought prosocial lies were more polite than their American counterparts. Social norms in the UK that stress preserving someone’s dignity despite the truth may have influenced this particular finding.

When in doubt, leave the sarcasm out

As you can see from these findings, when you take the sarcastic pathway to communication, you run the risk of seeming impolite and offending your conversation partner, even if it is the person closest to you. The context in which the study took place involved perceptions of strangers, not true conversation partners, but even your romantic partner could feel snubbed by your inept attempt at being funny. If you and your partner have your own language, this may not be as much of an issue, but there can still be risks if you overstep the bounds between sarcasm and rudeness.

The findings also show that older adults retain an important social communication skill. This presents another fair warning that if you think you can get away with sarcasm or even a white lie because the person you’re talking to has grey or white hair, you’re likely to be perceived as rude. This could, of course, backfire if you’re meeting your romantic partner’s grandparents for the first time or trying to impress someone at work who is a generation or two older than you are.

Direct communication has many advantages, especially if the message you’re conveying is a positive one. Sarcasm is best left to comedians, not to conversation partners who share a long and honest relationship that they wish to preserve.




James Parker is a communications expert specialising in the impact of sarcasm and irony on interpersonal relationships.

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