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A survey was conducted of 218 students and non-students regarding their use of sarcasm and various other personality traits. One question on the survey asked respondents to describe a sarcastic comment that they remembered making and why they remembered making it. Of the 218 respondents, 73 produced usable responses to this question. Respondents reported messages that exhibited more positive rather than negative language, more other-directed than self-directed messages, and more teasing rather than serious messages.

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Yeah, right!: A Linguistic Analysis of Self-reported Sarcastic Messages and Their Contexts

Patricia Rockwell Department of Communication University of Louisiana at Lafayette Lafayette, LA 70504 par2323@louisiana.edu

Presented to the Language and Social Interaction Division of the Southern States Communication Association at the annual convention, Dallas, TX, April, 2006

2 Abstract A survey was conducted of 218 students and non-students regarding their use of sarcasm and various other personality traits. One question on the survey asked respondents to describe a sarcastic comment that they remembered making and why they remembered making it. Of the 218 respondents, 73 produced usable responses to this question. Respondents reported messages that exhibited more positive rather than negative language, more other-directed than self-directed messages, and more teasing rather than serious messages.

3 Yeah, right!: A Linguistic Analysis of Self-reported Sarcastic Messages and Their Contexts Sarcasm is a linguistic phenomenon used by many speakers to express opinions of something or someone--often negative opinions. Unlike other verbal behaviors, sarcasm represents the opposite of what speakers actually mean. Speakers expect, in most cases, for recipients to recognize this contradiction. The assumption by linguists regarding sarcasm use is that speakers knowingly choose to use sarcasm to create a particular effect and should be able to explain their reasoning for choosing sarcasm in any particular situation or context if asked. This assumption may be premature. Are language users actually aware of their own use of sarcasm? That is, can they recall instances in which they used sarcasm? Do they know why they used sarcasm in any particular situation? And if so, what language features prevail in their sarcastic messages? This study attempted to answer these questions. Recall of Sarcastic Messages Survey questionnaires provide extensive data for social science researchers. Survey respondents are often asked about their recollections of behaviors, attitudes, and feelings. Typically, behavioral questions tap respondents memories of macro-level behaviors. Sometimes, however, researchers query for more micro-level behaviors such as specific instances of language use. Researchers in many fields have found that the accuracy of behaviors determined through self-report data is often comparable to that determined through observational or experimental means (Ghaderi & Scott, 2001; Goodman, Meltzer, & Bailey, 2003; Sherbourne & Meredith, 1992).

4 Researchers note, however, that certain types of behavior are more amenable to investigation through retrospective self-report data. For instance, Benoit and Benoit (1988) report that respondents are better able to remember verbal rather than nonverbal behavior, and their own comments better than their partners comments. Thus, we should expect that respondents will be able to report instances of sarcastic comments they have made. Researchers also report that survey respondents are typically able to recall and report their own attitudes and emotions (Metts, Sprecher, & Cupach, 1991). As sarcasm use represents instances of speakers expressing their attitudes or emotions, we should expect that survey respondents will be able to remember instances in which they have used sarcasm to express these attitudes or emotions and what attitudes or emotions prompted their sarcastic comments. On the other hand, researchers report that survey respondents are more likely to remember the general content of a message rather than the actual words (Benoit & Benoit, 1988). One exception to this rule, however, is that respondents are likely to remember actual wording of a remark that is recent (Ericsson & Simon, 1980). Thus, respondents should be likely to remember sarcastic remarks that they have made recently. Also, various confirmed heuristic biases may prevent respondents from accurately recalling specific comments they may have made. For example, as sarcasm is generally seen as a negative, insulting behavior, respondents may be reluctant to report their own use of sarcasm because they may feel that it does not present a positive self-image (social desirability bias, Crowne & Marlowe, 1960).

5 Linguistic Features of Sarcasm Researchers have investigated various linguistic features of sarcastic messages. Verbal cues of sarcasm may be morphological, syntactic, lexical, or typographical (Attardo et al., 2003). For example, Williams (1984) says that unusual wording and vocabulary often accompany sarcasm. Rockwell (2004) found that sentence types of sarcastic utterances were more often declarative than interrogative or imperative. One researcher (Rastall, 2003) found that the pronoun we was often used in sarcastic remarks such as And how are we today? This type of usage was most often seen as sarcastic when used by an adult speaker to address another adult in the second perrson. Valence, or the degree of positivity or negativity of a message is a major feature of sarcasm. In most instances, a sarcastic comment is positively worded and the intent is negative, such as Great job! said to someone who has done a terrible job (Gibbs, 2000). It is possible, however, to produce sarcasm with a positive intent and negative language, such as You look awful! to someone who looks especially nice. Needless to say, this second form of sarcasm is much less prevalent due to the possibility of misunderstanding and is typically used only in close relationships (Rockwell, 2005). Researchers have labeled these two types of sarcasm (using positive words with negative intent and using negative words with positive intent) in various ways: praise/blame (Anolli, Ciceri, & Infantino, 2002; Knox, 1961), kind/blame (Anolli & Infantino, 1997); sarcasm/jocularity (Gibbs, 2000), light/heavy (Leggitt & Gibbs, 2000), or ironic criticism/ironic insults (Clift, 1999; Gibbs, 1999; Kreuz & Link, 2002; Oring, 1994; Pexman & Zvaigne, 2000). Another common feature of sarcasm often analyzed by researchers involves the target or victim of the sarcasm. Researchers consider whether the sarcastic comment is

6 self-directed (self-deprecating) or other-directed (Ball, 1965). Some researchers (Ivanko, Pexman, & Olineck, 2004) suggest that women are more likely to produce the selfdirected form of sarcasm and men are more likely to produce the other-directed form. A third area of research into sarcastic messages involves the severity of the remark. Many researchers have suggested that most sarcasm is light-hearted or teasing (Gibbs, 2000), but others have noted that much sarcasm is highly destructive and damaging to relationships (Anolli & Infantino, 1997; Leggitt & Gibbs, 2000). Sarcasm is generally evaluative in content (Rockwell, 2004). That is, sarcastic messages imply some sort of evaluation of somethingoften a person and often the recipient of the remark. Evaluative comments about the weather are also prototypically sarcastic: Great weather were having! or Lovely weather! Thus, the wording of many sarcastic remarks involves evaluative terms such as beautiful, wonderful, great or excellent. Because of the nature of sarcasm, these terms are often extremes and often contain intense language. That is, sarcastic speakers are more likely to indicate their sarcasm by using superlative adjectives and adverbs (e.g., great, wonderful, or really) than they are to use more moderate terms (e.g., nice, good or somewhat) (Kreuz & Roberts, 1995; Seto, 1998). Method A questionnaire was completed by 150 students in undergraduate communication courses at a large southern university. These students were then offered extra credit to solicit questionnaire responses from individuals they knew. This procedure brought in an additional 68 questionnaires. The questionnaire contained numerous items about sarcasm use and various personality traits which were used in another study. One open-

7 ended question on the survey asked Please describe a sarcastic comment that you remember making. Tell why you remember making it. This question was designed to produce specific sarcastic comments and also to elicit something about the speakers intent and the context of the comment. Results Of the 218 questionnaires returned (males = 87, females = 131), 55 respondents did not answer this question. Of the 163 respondents who did answer the question, 73 produced responses that actually represented a sarcastic message. In some instances responses were presented without rationale but were considered usable because the context was implied (e.g. Boy, are you a great driver! suggests a comment made to someone exhibiting poor driving behavior). The 73 usable responses were examined for four features: language valence (positivity versus negativity), self- versus other-directed language, teasing versus serious language, and evaluative versus non-evaluative language. Regarding language valence or whether the message exhibited criticism or praise, 69 of the 73 messages exhibited sarcastic criticism; that is the statement used positive language to imply a negative intent. Examples of these included: You did a wonderful parking job, said when I opened the car door and stepped in a puddle, or You are the brains of this organization. Of the four messages that exhibited sarcastic praise (using negative language to imply positive intent), two were produced by males and two by females. In one message, the speaker told a girl she was very fat. . . . She is actually svelte and gorgeous. In a similar vein, one speaker reported, My mom is skinny, but she says shes fat so one day I agreed with her. I did it extremely sarcastically so that shed stop complaining. A female respondent

8 said, I was talking about a really attractive guy on TV and said he was not cute, but I did think he was

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