Sarcasm: The tricky trope

In yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Jeremy Corbyn said ‘I hope that the Prime Minister is proud of her record…’ Most native English speakers would know that this isn’t what he meant. In fact, Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t care whether or not Theresa May feels pride in her record. However, he is pointing out that she shouldn’t be proud. Sarcasm; plain, simple and scathing.

Jeremy Corbyn could have said ‘I hope the Prime Minister is ashamed of her track record’, however, he clearly thought that sarcasm was more effective. Sarcasm can be a nasty way of telling someone off, and if it’s done publicly in a way that patronises your opponent, then you definitely get bonus points from your party.

Whilst sarcasm can be used in speeches, it is more common in conversations and debates. When used in speeches it has to be obvious to the audience that you are using it. Many people who have English as a second language struggle to understand sarcasm, as indeed do many native English speakers. It is quite difficult to detect as you often need to read both tone and body language to understand it – which is particularly difficult if you are also simultaneously interpreting something into another language. Sarcasm can also be cultural, and some cultures, even within the UK, don’t use sarcasm as often as others.

Generally, any statement that starts with ‘I hope you’re proud’ is almost certainly going to be sarcastic – perhaps pride being one of the seven deadly sins is a contributing factor. Unfortunately, most of the time, sarcasm is subtler than ‘I hope you are proud of yourself’. For example, ‘I love steak’ can be a genuine exclamation for one’s love of steak. However, when said by a vegan, it is almost certainly scathing sarcasm with a splattering of judgement.

Signs of sarcasm:

  • If the statement is in direct contradiction to the speaker’s views (this only works on the premise that you know that speaker’s views).
  • The speaker might use tone (or lack to tone) to indicate that they are disingenuously mocking the statement they’ve just said. People often use a deadpan tone – the sort that usually accompanies a slow hand clap.
  • A speaker’s body language can often indicate that they are being sarcastic. Many people will roll their eyes back in an exaggerated fashion. Some people even wiggle their heads and raise their heads up if they’re being particularly dramatic.

I remember, as a schoolboy, the moment that my maths teacher announced that the next topic we were going to cover was statistics. Over the silence of the class I said ‘Yay…. I love statistics…..’. As you can imagine, I got told off.

Sarcasm is a great way of communicating, however, it is difficult to use, and any speaker should be conscious that it might not be understood. In a conversational setting you can easily clarify what you meant if the people you are talking to look at a loss, however, this is not a luxury we have when speaking in front of an audience.

Winston Churchill said that “tact, is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in a way that makes them look forward to the journey”. To do that you really need to be a silver-tongued master of wit and a lord of sarcasm.

 

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