Sarcasm, Hidden Meanings, and Politeness

So much of communication is not about what we say directly, but about the implications of how we choose to convey the information. Most of my day job revolves around crafting a sentence’s literal content so that the audience/readers will most likely understand my intended, implied message.

What fascinates me is how easily we can understand a person’s intended message from even drastically different literal content.

Take the sentence “Your dog is very happy right now.” The literal meaning is obvious: the dog is happy! But what if it came right after you ask your friend, “What happened to my roast beef sandwich?” Suddenly, the intended message changes: the treacherous dog ate your sandwich! We’re able to draw the correct implication, but how?

Steven Pinker’s “The Stuff of Thought” pointed me toward an interesting explanation. We assume that other people are following certain rules, trying to cooperate with us by sharing information efficiently. Pinker cites Paul Grice’s four Conversational “Maxims” that we take for granted people are following:


  • Say no less than the conversation requires.
  • Say no more than the conversation requires.


  • Don’t say what you believe to be false.
  • Don’t say things for which you lack evidence.


  • Don’t be obscure.
  • Don’t be ambiguous.
  • Be brief.
  • Be orderly.


  • Be relevant.

We typically take it for granted that people are following these maxims, so if the literal meaning of a sentence breaks them there must be an intended message which doesn’t. You figure that your friend wasn’t arbitrarily changing the subject by mentioning your dog’s wagging tail – that would violate the maxim of Relevance. He must be giving information relevant to the disappearance of your roast beef sandwich.

Polite expressions also make more sense with these maxims in mind. Taking it literally, it’s strange for me to say at breakfast, “If you could pass the syrup that would be great.” It would be such an odd time to discuss counter-factual possible worlds that you parse it differently: “Pass me the syrup.” You know I want to cover my waffles in delicious maple-y goodness.

My favorite example, however, is sarcasm. At the beginning of the movie “Serenity”, the protagonists stage a robbery only to find the safe nearly empty. Zoe looks at Captain Mal blankly and says, “At last, we can retire and give up this life of crime.” The statement’s literal meaning is clearly not true, so it’s violating the maxim of Quality. As a result, we interpret her statement to have the intended implication that Mal led them to failure.

But why do we bother with these techniques? If everybody can see right through the double-talk, what’s the benefit in using them?

To put his point into an unfairly small nutshell, Pinker suggests that the literal meaning of the words still strongly affect our social reactions, even if the implied message is completely different. It’s considered a challenge to someone’s autonomy if I order them to pass the syrup – but not if I couch it as a statement of fact about my desire. It’s still mocking to insult someone with sarcasm, but the speaker don’t come across quite as poorly because the literal statement is positive. According to studies done by psychologist Ellen Winner and her colleagues,

[P]eople have a better impression of speakers who express a criticism with sarcasm (“What a great game you just played!”) than with direct language (“What a lousy game you just played!”) The sarcastic speakers, compared with the blunt ones, are seen as less angry, less critical, and more in control.

Communication does more than share information. It’s a social act. Different phrasings can save face, show respect, and influence how others see us. The question is still “What do we want to accomplish with what we’re saying?” But we can learn to wield a good deal of control over the impact our words have.

9 Responses to Sarcasm, Hidden Meanings, and Politeness

  1. michael says:

    the 4 maxims dont really work tho.
    Who thinks to themselves ” how can i best efficiently say this?” ? Truth is NOBODY.
    We purposefully are vague, often to sugar-coat things ( as needed ) for we have our friends best -interests at heart.
    People also says things everyday that have no supportive facts. They “soap-box it” and figure if they yell the loudest, people will just assume they are right. As for talking, KNOWING what you say is false… you must not watch politicians talk at all do you?

    Very few of these ideals actually apply. But, hey, YOUR the expert.

  2. Jesse Galef says:

    It’s absolutely true that people don’t follow these maxims perfectly. The maxims aren’t a conscious decision any more than other social rules are. But it certainly fits my experience of how I interpret what other people say. I (mostly unconsciously) try to figure out what motivated the person to say what they did. When it comes to politicians, it’s often to mislead or distract.

    In most communication, people are pretty cooperative. We even apply social pressure to those who don’t – making fun of people who are overly long-winded, criticizing people who lie or bend the truth for non-cooperative goals, and generally disrespecting those who just don’t have a clue about what information to share.

    Given that, as you say, we don’t think to ourselves, “What’s the exact right quantity to say here?” it’s remarkable that we tend to be pretty good at it. If I could choose, people would be a bit more concise, but still.

    People undoubtedly can be tight-lipped, long-winded, mendacious, cavalier, obscure, ambiguous, verbose, rambling, or off-topic. But on closer examination they are far less so than they could be, given the possibilities. If I ask a friend how to buy a movie ticket online, he will neither begin his answer with lessons on how to type, nor leave it at ‘Go to a Web site where they sell movie tickets.’ He won’t direct me to a porn site, nor will he make up the address www. just because it sounds plausible. He won’t bury his answer in a half-hour disquisition on how the Internet is changing our lives, or give me tips on how to cook scrod. None of these facts can be taken for granted.

  3. I’ve been tossing around ideas like this for a while, and I think it awesome that someone actually fleshed them all out! It’s certainly a subject you can spend endless amount of time on.

    A modern example of a social practice that relies on these principles is “trolling”. Trolling involves violates all four axioms – it is unnecessarily brief (or long copy-pasta), it is saying this that are false or baseless, it is usually rude, and it usually comes out of nowhere. It’s different from satire and sarcasm though, because there the subject and the context are import to convey an idea through the absurdity of its opposite. Trolling instead seems to be making a point about these verbal rules themselves. That is, is there some discourse that we take seriously that we should instead disqualify whether the speaker is serious or not?

    I think there also a lot of jokes that focus on misdirections that probably take advantage of these rules but how they do this is a little harder to articulate. Take the old “I woke up during a Safari and I had to shoot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I’ll never know.” In addition to the syntactic ambiguity, the joke seems to be relying on some notion “This cannot be a true story, elephants in pajamas are ridiculous” or “You’d think he would have mentioned the unusual elephant behavior first”. But clearly being silly is not good enough to make a joke by itself.

    I agree that when we speak in completely perverse ways and we successful convey our non-literal message there is something really uplifting about it. I think it has more to do with proving an understanding between the speaker and his audience than the words being positive. The idea is that “you know, no matter what I or anyone else says, that I understand how you feel.” For the same reason that it pleases people that you verbally demonstrate that you know them well, it pleases people when you show that words are unnecessary.

    Anyway, interesting stuff.

  4. Bytor says:

    I like how, on the day of the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival, one of your examples uses maple syrup. 🙂

  5. Julia Galef says:

    @Bytor — It’s actually not that big of a coincidence — approximately 90% of Jesse’s examples involve waffles and/or syrup.

  6. Bytor says:

    As a tangent to the whole sarcasm topic, have you ever noticed that much of what we call humour is about the misfortunes of other people? Ever since this was first pointed out to me many years ago I have struggled – off and on – with how to deal with this. (And more off than on, admittedly guilty on that.) The old “tragedy is what happens to me, humour is what happens to others” is kind of self-centred and even downright nasty when you think about it.

    After all, I don’t like to get embarrassed so it doesn’t behoove me to laugh at others when they get embarrassed. Yet these things are still funny and I’m not sure I can not find them not funny, and one must admit that humour is a wonderful group-bonding mechanism. It just seems to violate the “do to others as you would have them do to you” principle on many occasions and that bothers me.

    Note: I say this as one who makes a pretty good showing of himself in instances of sarcasm. *sigh*

    • Jesse Galef says:

      Bytor (and Jeffery) –

      Yeah, I’ve never been much of a fan of laughing about others’ suffering. I can’t help but empathize with how the other person must be feeling, which is why malicious trolling rubs me the wrong way.

      There are a lot of situations that are still funny to me, particularly irony and clever surrealism. Come on, who doesn’t love Monty Python? I wrote about a possible link between skepticism and irony a while ago, back when I was guest-blogging for Unreasonable Faith.

      Perhaps it’s time to revisit the topic!

  7. Henry Shevlin says:

    Dinosaur comics has great things to say on this subject as usual.

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