The Risk of Sarcastic Writing (And What You Can Do About It)

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Not too long ago I wrote a satirical post about never commenting on blog posts.  I shared it with a few folks prior to publishing, made some adjustments and sent it over to Problogger thinking some people would enjoy the tongue-in-cheek style on a fairly tired topic.  I didn’t expect much in the way of reader participation.

I was wrong.

A lot of people responded.  Some people liked the post.  Many people got angry.  I was called a communist.  And the most ironic part is the people that got the most incensed actually agreed with what I had to say.  The problem was with how I said it.

I didn’t make it clear enough that the post was intended to be satirical.  As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about sarcasm and digital communication.  Here are some of my thoughts.

Sarcasm is Tough Online

If you are a sarcastic person you’ve likely had an issue at some point with using sarcasm in digital communication.  Maybe you’ve sent an email with some witticism that was misread.  Perhaps it was a text message that was taken the wrong way.  Some misunderstandings are minor and easily corrected.  Others are far larger and can be more difficult to rein in.  Here are a few common problems with using digital sarcasm and some ways you can remedy them.

Most Readers Don’t Know You

You’re a sarcastic person.  Your friends likely know this.  Many people that read your writing (either on a blog, in an email, tweet or status update) do not.  A lack of familiarity ups the odds that your sarcasm will be misread.

Solution:

Make sure you don’t assume any prior knowledge about who you are or how you communicate (unless you’re Larry David, in which case you can write about taxes in the New York Times and people will likely get that you’re joking).  When revising, focus a read specifically on the way you are delivering your message to ensure that your sarcasm is going to be effectively communicated.

Readers Can’t Hear Your Delivery

A lot of sarcasm is in the delivery.  It’s about your inflection and emphasis.  This requires a bit of extra thought when you’re trying to convey it in writing.

Solution:

A careful use of emphasis in your sarcastic writing can go a long way.  Consider using italics, bolded words or an occasional all caps word to visually demonstrate your emphasis.  For example:

I love when people are rude.

vs.

I love when people are rude.

First Read is Often Serious

Most readers will default to reading your writing as serious until you’ve given them reason to think otherwise.  If a reader is not sure you are being sarcastic, they’ll likely assume you’re writing what you believe to be true.  When you are trying to be sarcastic, this is rarely a good thing.

Solution:

Give the reader some early indication you may not be totally serious.  But don’t be overly obvious from the beginning.  It’s often more effective to suck a reader in and then instill a sense of doubt before fully revealing your sarcastic approach.

Can’t Tailor Your Delivery Based on Reaction

When you’re being sarcastic in person, you can use others’ reactions to determine whether or not they’re getting your sarcasm.  In writing, you don’t get this opportunity.

Solution:

Read and reread.  Ask others to read what you’ve written and give their feedback.   Don’t tell them it’s a satire and see if they pick it up.  Granted, this will likely be a bit biased since they know you.  But at least you’ll be able to ask questions and gauge the way you are conveying your message.

Ultimately, Don’t Fear Misunderstanding

As is the case with any joke, there is always a chance that someone will misunderstand it.  And this misunderstanding usually isn’t funny.  In fact, chances are you’ll come across as a jerk.  But that doesn’t have to create a sense of fear.  The feeling of it being something of an inside joke is actually what makes sarcasm worthwhile.  You just have to craft your delivery to make as many people feel like insiders as is possible.

Solution:

Pick your spots carefully.  Consider the potential ramifications of a misunderstanding.  If you’re communicating with a client via email, it’s likely not a great time to risk a potentially large misunderstanding due to sarcasm.

While this misunderstanding is something to consider, it’s not something to fear.  In hindsight, would I write the blog post for Problogger again?  Absolutely.  I’d likely incorporate a few of the solutions outlined above and make the satirical nature of the post a little more transparent.  But, I’m a sarcastic person.  It comes through in the way I communicate everyday.  And I like to convey that aspect of myself through my writing from time to time.

Your Stories and Thoughts

I’m sure many of you have your own stories of a time when your digital sarcasm was misunderstood.  What happened?  How’d it work out?  What do you think about satirical writing in general?  Let us know in the comments below.