Authors: Anas Maya & Mariia Porunkova, students of the European Master’s in Clinical Linguistics & Adrià Rofes, assistant professor of neurolinguistics at the University of Groningen
Have you ever been in a situation in which irony was misunderstood as sincerity? For example, let’s say you’re at a clothing store with a friend of yours and you see a really ugly shirt on display. You say “Look! What a nice shirt!”. The next thing you know, your friend decides to buy you the exact same shirt. Ta-da! You end up having to wear an ugly shirt because your irony was not understood. Sounds familiar? Or are you that friend? Generally, we are good at making and understanding ironic comments, but mistakes do happen every so often. To help you avoid such mistakes, we will provide you with four tips based on psycholinguistics research on recognizing and using irony successfully.
1. Context matters! Ironic comments often mismatch the preceding context, and speakers usually rely on this inconsistency as a clue for irony (e.g., Deliens et al., 2018). For example, if you had told your friend on the way to the store that you dislike shirts with floral patterns, they would have guessed that your comment was ironic if the shirt you were commenting on had flowers all over it. It would be difficult for your friend to notice your irony if they do not know much about your sense of fashion. So, next time you want to make an ironic comment, remember to provide your listener with some background information.
2. Read the speaker’s mind! By definition, ironic comments are the opposite of what the speaker intends to communicate (e.g., Winner & Leekam, 1991). If we figure out the intention of the speaker, we can also understand whether they are using irony or not. Psychologists call this capacity “theory of mind”, and it refers to the ability to make good guesses about the beliefs and minds of others (Baron-Cohen et al., 1985). Theory of mind enables you to take into account that the intentions of the speakers do not always align with the words they speak. In the example above, without considering your intention to be ironic, your friend might end up believing that in fact, you do like that shirt. Theory of mind does not come naturally to everyone. For example, people with schizophrenia may find it difficult to bear in mind the intentions of others. Consequently, they tend to interpret ironic comments as serious, which can lead to major misunderstandings (Piovan et al., 2016). To communicate irony effectively, it is necessary to make our intentions known to our listener, and to recognize irony, we may need to detect ironic intentions. Mind-reading in itself is a challenging task, so move on to step 3 for a pro tip!
3. Look for the clues! Besides their words, ironic speakers will drop a hint or two to make their irony known to others (e.g., Aguert, 2022; Attardo, 2003). Where should we look for these hints? We can find clues in intonation and facial expressions! When being ironic, we often speak slower than usual (Bryant, 2010). Also, we tend to say the words that are not to be taken literally in a louder voice: “What a NICE shirt!” (Attardo, 2003). Different facial expressions can also be spotted as a sign of irony. Ironic speakers can raise their eyebrows briefly (a behavior known as an eyebrow flash), look away from the listener, or force a smile. There is no one-and-only signal for irony, but speakers often make a unique expression that they do not usually use when they are not being ironic (Aguert, 2022). Not all speakers employ these expressions. Hence, to be on the safe side, consider flashing your eyebrows or changing your tone to help your interlocutor identify your irony.
4. Know whom you are talking to. Irony is not only judged by what and how something is said, but also by who says it (e.g., Pexman & Olineck, 2002). You probably know someone who uses irony so often that you struggle to discern whether they are serious about what they say. When judging irony, we consider whether the speaker likes to joke or not and how often they do that. People are less likely to perceive irony coming from, say, an accountant, than from a comedian (Pexman & Olineck, 2002). When we meet someone new, we cannot take these factors into consideration. This is why it takes some time to understand the irony of one another – all the reason to use tips 1 – 3 with new people to avoid misunderstanding and confusion. If you are often ironic and you do not use tips 1 – 3, your irony probably will not land with new friends.
In summary: recognizing and using irony is not easy. Research in psycholinguistics stresses the role of considering the context, the intentions of the speaker, their tone of voice and facial expressions, and, last but not least, their character. So, next time you manage to recognize that someone is being ironic instantly, pat yourself on the back for being such a good psycholinguistic detective.
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Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”? Cognition, 21(1), 37–46.
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Deliens, G., Antoniou, K., Clin, E., Ostashchenko, E., & Kissine, M. (2018). Context, facial expression and prosody in irony processing. Journal of memory and language, 99, 35-48.
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Winner, E., & Leekam, S. (1991). Distinguishing irony from deception: Understanding the speaker’s second‐order intention. British journal of developmental psychology, 9(2), 257-270.