Sarcasm is the simple idea of saying the opposite of what you actually mean, usually for humorous effect, but sometimes as a way of putting someone else down. Sometimes both. In spoken communication, the use of sarcasm is usually indicated by either an understated or overstated tone of voice. But in text communication, there’s no way to signpost sarcasm. The writer just has to hope that the reader understands the intended irony. Here’s an example:

This blog post is the greatest piece of literature ever written.

Did you detect the sarcasm there? We didn’t need to use special punctuation marks or a different font. You just understood that we didn’t mean what we wrote from the context. The sarcasm wasn’t thick and heavy, of course. This blog post is hardly the worst thing ever written - it’s actually pretty good - but you get the point.

Now, what might surprise you about sarcasm is that using it can actually be quite good for you. A 2015 Harvard Business School study found that subjects who had just participated in conversations where sarcasm was used performed better in tasks demanding creativity than those subjects who had participated in sincere conversations.

Researchers proposed that this is likely because participating in a sarcastic conversation forces you to “think outside of the box”. Your brain literally has to reverse the meaning of things that are said sarcastically, and this is apparently a great warm up for other activities that require lateral thinking, such as brainstorming ideas and solving difficult problems.

With this in mind, any working team would be foolish to place an outright ban on sarcasm in all its communications. But a powerful tool like sarcasm needs to be treated with care. The same study also found that, unsurprisingly, people tend to experience more feelings of conflict when sarcasm is being used. And the other big risk with sarcasm - particularly in text communications - is that there’s always a chance that someone might miss the irony completely and take the sarcastic comment literally.

This too can be very funny. Eventually. After all the screaming and caps lock has stopped and everyone’s agreed there was just a little misunderstanding. So let’s laugh (and maybe learn from) some examples:

On New Year’s Eve 2019, Pope Francis momentarily lost his temper when greeting a crowd in St. Peter’s Square, and slapped the hand of a woman who grabbed his robe and pulled him towards her. In response to the incident, journalist Matt Walsh took to Twitter (ground zero for people taking sarcastic comments literally) and pointed out that if the Pope is infallible, the rest of us now have license to slap whoever we want.

This is a reasonably funny joke to anyone who realizes that it is a joke. Sadly, many didn’t.

“You're really sad for thinking that your words are true,” came one reply. There’s almost enough irony in that statement alone to make the whole universe implode.

There’s actually an entire subreddit (r/woooosh), boasting a million-strong community, dedicated solely to instances where people have completely missed jokes, most of which are based on sarcasm and irony. The all-time most popular post on this subreddit is shockingly (that was sarcasm - see how it works?) taken from Twitter. One user posted the following joke:

“I just saw some idiot at the gym put a water bottle in the Pringles holder on the treadmill.”

The tweet got 50,000 likes, 7,000 retweets, and 80 replies, one of which was,

“That’s a water bottle holder”

The lesson here is that even when sarcasm ought to be easy to spot from context, it isn’t necessarily so. Which means that it’s even easier to miss it in text messages where the context is even less obvious. That’s why Woice allows you to attach voice recordings (complete with sarcastic or sincere tone, as appropriate) to every text communication you send or post. It’s a simple, brilliant idea, and we’re not being sarcastic.