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How (and when) to communicate sarcasm in email and texts 

Monday, February 29, 2016
posted by Douglas Keene

winking emoticon[Spoiler alert: Don’t do it. And especially don’t do it on a group message. But if you must, make it clear you are kidding.]

We have covered the use of emoticons in legal settings before, but here’s a research article looking at what helps the receiver understand the context in which your written comments are intended. Are you serious, or are you joking? Were you playing it straight, or going for a laugh? Confusion arises in texts and email communication where you cannot use tone of voice or a grin to ensure your recipient understands the intent of your message. We’ve all heard of this sort of miscommunication and many of us had it happen to us.

Science to the rescue. You may never be misunderstood again.

UK researchers wanted to see if various emoticons and punctuation would result in a clearer understanding of the writer’s intent. They did two separate experiments which involved almost 200 undergraduate students. In experiment one, the students read text-based messages containing either praise or criticism with context made very clear. In the second experiment, no context was explicitly described so that the message could be taken either literally or sarcastically.

While in this post we are using “modern” versions of the emoticons which are quite prevalent (and likely at the bottom of your ‘edit menu’ in many applications), these researchers used the aging punctuation marks in their messages. So they offered a “wink face” ;-), or a “tongue face” :-P, or an ellipsis (…) versus exclamation mark (!) as devices to test for understanding of sarcasm.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when the context was explicit and unambiguous (e.g., “Tanya had noticed that Jenny had put on a great deal of weight” and so Tanya said to Jenny, “I see the diet is going well”)—neither emoticons nor punctuation (e.g., ellipsis, exclamation point or emoticon) helped the research participants see it as more sarcastic—the sarcasm seemed obvious to them.

On the other hand, when the situation was less explicit and more ambiguous, the winking face emoticon was most effective in helping participants see the message as sarcastic. That is, the participants were more likely to take a message as sarcasm rather than literally if it was accompanied by the winking face emoticon.

In short, if you want to be certain your written and potentially ambiguous message is interpreted as communicating sarcasm, use a winking emoticon. And thus reduce your risk for potential misunderstanding. 😜

Filik R, Țurcan A, Thompson D, Harvey N, Davies H, & Turner A (2015). Sarcasm and emoticons: Comprehension and emotional impact. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1-17 PMID: 26513274

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