It’s hard to convey sarcasm in writing, but the consequences of using or interpreting a sarcastic phrase wrong can be serious. Sarcasm is, after all, “a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain” or “a mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language,” per Merriam-Webster. Thus, when you’re being sarcastic, you’re usually saying something that isn’t true — with the understanding the other person will know it’s not true. Your tone of voice can help convey this sort of wittiness in real life, but by text, email, or tweet, sarcasm can be much harder to spot.
Consider the context before resorting to sarcasm
This tip comes from Kristina Adams at The Writer’s Cookbook, and while it’s geared toward fiction writers, it’s appropriate for even the most basic texter, too. If you want to be sarcastic, you need to determine if the setting allows for it. Some settings are no-brainers, even digitally. If your boss emails you an assignment while you’re busy, you don’t respond with a sarcastic, “Sure, I’ll get right on that.” Because of the power dynamics in the relationship and the professional setting, your boss might not pick up on your sarcasm at all — but if they did, they probably wouldn’t appreciate it.
Other times, the situation might seem like it lends itself to a sarcastic quip. Maybe you and your friend trade barbs and caustic comments all the time — but when your friend and their partner are fighting is not the time to take a dig at their significant other. When negative emotions are heightened, the sarcasm can sting a little deeper.
As Adams pointed out, lots of sarcastic one-liners don’t translate well outside of their context, either. You need to be careful that anything you say is at the right moment, in the right setting, and among the right people, lest you become the latest victim of an out-of-context viral screenshot.
Make sure your sarcastic messages aren’t aggressive
Rakia Ben Sassi at The Writing Cooperative also pointed out that identifying your context and audience are important, but shared additional tips on how to write the message once you’ve done that. Whether it’s a tweet or a text, use an informal tone and don’t go over-the-top.
She also advised that you read your writing out loud to determine if it sounds sarcastic, then adjust your tone as necessary: “Sarcasm, of course, is meant to be sarcastic. But you need to ensure that it will be taken as a joke rather than a threat. This form of humour employs irony or absurdism in order to criticise something or someone, but it’s a double-sided sword. Use your own intuition and try not to sound too threatening or aggressive.”
Modern problems require modern solutions
Effectively conveying sarcasm has bedeviled novelists and penpals for years. This isn’t new. What is new, of course, is how many opportunities you have every day to be misunderstood in some kind of digital forum, whether it’s on Facebook, in an email, or in a text. Luckily, with all these new mediums, there are also new innovations when it comes to self-expression.
To convey sarcasm in a text, G/O Media video producer Justin Rodriguez says he simply appends an eye-rolling emoji. You could try that or opt for a gif, a meme, or another image that helps convey your irony and irreverence.
Some social media users also use “/s” to denote sarcasm, but this can come across contrived and a little cringe-y. If possible, stick with the emojis. As a rule of thumb, if it doesn’t feel appropriate to include an emoji, it probably isn’t appropriate to attempt sarcasm there in the first place.