Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Sarcasm Test for Credulity

Have you ever had the uncomfortable experience of making a sarcastic comment, and someone on the receiving end didn't realize it was sarcastic? True story: I was having dinner with my mother and two of her friends, all older people. It was early 2003. We were talking about world affairs, and when the possibility of war with Iraq came up, I offered "Well, killing our enemies is what our Founding Fathers and Jesus Christ intended." "You know what, you're right!" one of my mother's friends exclaimed, pounding the table. I didn't know how to follow that up. No one at the table had realized I was being sarcastic.

Now, I love my mom to death, but she's often too agreeable for her own good, as are many people in this world. The discomfort wasn't that we held different values. What bothered me more was that you can obtain not just silent assent but actual enthusiastic agreement just by saying something with a straight face, no matter how outrageous it is - a sort of conversational parallel to the fascinating but upsetting Milgram experiment. (Even better/worse are Derren Brown's efforts in this regard.)

Dry sarcasm is actually quite tricky. In order for it to work, you have to assume (correctly) that your target has an accurate enough model of your beliefs to know when your words are departing from your beliefs, without any cue from tone or facial expression. It's tough to read people to this degree, which is exactly why sarcasm is dangerous and can backfire. At the very least, even if they don't "get it", you would hope they would have the presence of mind and confidence in their own values to object to particularly egregious statements. Clearly, not everybody does. It's embarrassing when someone doesn't get it, because if the conversation continues, now you're in a position where you have to explain that no, you actually don't believe that, and it becomes clear that something just went over someone's head - or even worse, that in trying to be non-confrontational by agreeing with whatever you say, they just agreed with something you actually think is offensive.

For this reason, sarcasm is a good acid-test for suggestibility, to see if people have clearly defined values, but it can also easily cause hurt feelings. I'd like to see some measurement of sarcasm relative to groupthink (religious belief or otherwise). This may be why, for example, you don't see a parallel development to the Colbert Report on the Christian Broadcasting Network.


Dan said...

Perhaps your mother's friend was putting you on. She did, after all, pound the table.

The next logical step to take with the sarcasm is to become more exaggerated and ridiculous. Remove a shoe and beat a tattoo on the table while chanting "We will bury you!"

If someone doesn't get your dry sarcasm, perhaps it is your duty to provide a social lubricant. It's more than a bit vain to assume that your wit is alone at the table.

Michael Caton said...

I wasn't stroking my own cleverness. The point is that many people aren't used to being around others who don't share all of their views, and don't have a sarcasm detector. They also might be very suggestible and so averse to conflict that they'll agree with anything that's said (and when you practice this for long enough, it becomes more than just a social nicety).