The Irony of it All

Do you ever wonder if you’re being secretly mocked? Dissected verbally? Autopsied? Text messages can be like body bags, purposely hiding what they contain, concealing what has been done. I’m not by nature a suspicious creature… okay, I am, but like the sarcasm in my own texts, I figure it is sufficiently camouflaged so as not to arouse any suspicion. I do not have the same confidence in the sincerity of others, however. I’m never sure whether I should be offended or heartened by what I’ve been sent.

In a way, I attribute it to my age: to my not having grown up suckling on a smartphone, or teething on a keyboard, to still opening my missives with a ‘Dear John’ letter format, and closing with ‘yours sincerely’ -although I did once try a ‘cheers’ much to the disappointment of my mother when I was visiting her sick brother in a far off city.

How, though, can I be sure that I am not being similarly played? In my more lucid moments, I try to remember that the world is not just a faint reflection of myself. Sometimes, however, I am captured by the past, and memories surface like the eyes of crocodiles, waiting to detain me beyond their initial caress. It’s then I realize I have to stay awake to nuance, be alert to retribution. And so I mistrust my friends and their pithily inventive messages, no doubt rife with irony, double entendres, or mockery gussied up in business attire.

I suppose it would be much easier to judge face to face, but then I, too, might be uncovered. There are few secrets possible in lips. There is little hidden in the eyes… Anyway, short, terse messages do not require a face any more than a memo does. They are reminders -just data; they are not intended to impart wisdom so much as relay outlines -they are bones, not flesh.

Still, there is much to think about in communicating. Am I still a casualty if I miss the derision? Am I equally culpable if my intended victim misses it as well? Is it worthwhile even trying?

I say this because, I’m beginning to suspect that my usually germane and acerbic wit has been withering on its textual vine. That my assiduously composed Emails have missed their marks. And that expressions I felt were clever and multi-tailed were judged banal by those recipients who should have known better. I’m coming to the reluctant conclusion that sarcasm does not flourish well in condensates -digitally texted pith, at any rate. But I’m not alone:

The author of the article, Sara Peters, Assistant Professor of Psychology, at Newberry College, maintains that ‘[…]  it’s not always easy to figure out if a writer is being sarcastic – particularly as we march ahead in a digital age that has transformed the way we communicate, with texting, emailing and online commentary replacing face-to-face chats or phone conversations. In writing, the signal of sarcasm can be muddied.

‘[…] Studies have shown that people realize that they have a tough time interpreting sarcasm in writing. Studying the use of Email, researchers found writers who think they’re being obviously sarcastic still confuse readers. Sarcasm thrives in ambiguous situations – and that’s the main issue. When delivered in person, sarcasm tends to assume a cutting, bitter tone. But written messages don’t always get that attitude across or give you much else to go on. We still need more information. […] The problem is that a lot of previous studies of sarcasm have been done on spoken sarcasm, which tends to give listeners cues.’

She goes on to point out the obvious: ‘When you have a conversation with someone face-to-face (or FaceTime-to-FaceTime) and they say something sarcastic, you’ll see their facial expression, and they may look slightly bemused or tense. Equally or more helpful, the tone of their voice will likely change, too – they may sound more intense or draw out certain phrases.’

So has the ageless art of sarcasm suffered a faceless demise in the Age of the Text? I note that Professor Peters, clearly worried about its fate, has tried to commute the verdict: ‘The digital age has developed some ways to mitigate some of the tortuous ambiguity. You can probably include an emoji to make it clearer to a reader something was meant sarcastically.’

I’ve thought of that of course, but unfortunately what the little yellow face is actually trying to say is far from clear to me -except maybe with the one that’s rolling its eyes. I’m good with the eyes and everything, but sometimes it’s hard to work them into a sentence while maintaining the intended erudition. And I have absolutely no idea what the upside-down one means -or what the different ways the eyes can be depicted mean, for that matter. I have to admit I’ve been using a lot of smiley ones lately when signing off, but I’m not sure what that tells people, either. Jollity? Uninvited intimacy? Am I an unintended purveyor of sexual harassment? Have I made an innocent sally into their personal space?

And let’s face it, it’s also rude to make fun of people -that’s why I’ve tried to mitigate it with clever sarcasm, not silly laughing faces. Do the smilies sully my texts, or merely suggest buffoonery? There must be another way.

To tell the truth, I also feel frustrated at my inability to adhere to the modern trend of condensing words into a series of consonants when I text. Nowadays, it’s as if showing vowels were as embarrassing as revealing bits of underwear. As if clothing words in their business orthograms is akin to sucking one’s thumb or using a teething ring on a bus -something normal people outgrow, and certainly do not flaunt. But I have always taken as much pride in unpeeled words, as in chewing my own food. And yet, in a world where you can buy shelled peanuts and naked carrots in a bag, I suspect I am regarded as more atavistic than savvy. Who knows, maybe everybody simply skips over my vowels to get to the meat.

But, hold on! Perhaps I’ve stumbled across an epiphany. I wonder whether vowels are the new sarcasm -the new emoticons. The new tongues in cheeks. They probably stand out in a text like the raised middle finger used to in the days when there were actual finger-to-face confrontations. They are the textual diacritics, I suppose, and to the cognoscenti they should convey something other than the message. They are the Pig Latin of an older, more particular age.

All is not lost after all. There is a grammar at the end of the tunnel.

Or did I just do another atavism…?


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