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Workplace blogs

You Look Fabulous! No, I’m Serious!

October is official Sarcastic Awareness Month, which raises the question, “How sarcastic aware is your workplace?” A few non-sarcastic thoughts on the matter…

1. Although an Israeli research team has created an Algorithm for Sarcasm Identification software program (sounds like something Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory” could use) that which can detect sarcastic sentences in online product reviews with an astoundingly good 77 percent precision, we humans are still very poor at detecting sarcasm in written correspondence. Although, for example, respondents thought they were right 90% of the time, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found readers only have a 50/50 shot at correctly identifying the tone of an email.

This problem has been around for a while: The difficulty of signalling textual irony was first commented on in 1509 by the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, who complained about the lack of a punctuation mark that could signal NationalSarcasmSocietysarcasm or irony. So remember the old saying, “the written word does not smile” and be very careful about using sarcasm in e-mail or text messages. Better yet, avoid it at all costs. Say what you mean and mean what you say.

2. Since sarcasm comes from a Greek term roughly translating as “to tear at flesh like a dog,” also be very wary of using sarcasm in any workplace face-to-face communication. Studies show there’s a far greater likelihood of people using and understanding sarcasm with the people we feel closest to, and you may be able to get away with it in some workplace relationships, but with new relationships (for example, customers) sarcasm should be avoided unless you want to make a huge impression on someone. (Am I being sarcastic? Hmm.)

3. I met a manager years ago who was notoriously sarcastic, so his employees created a “Sarcasm Scale” that hung on his office door. Each morning he would adjust the arrow to indicate how sarcastic a mood he was likely going to be that day. It was a fun way of reminding him to be aware of how he might be coming across, and a reminder of everyone not to always take his comments at face value.

4. A simple idea to monitor the tone in your meetings: Have a noise maker or colored flag available that everyone uses to either signal their intent to be sarcastic OR use when they want to humorously call someone out for their use of sarcasm.

5. In some circumstances, some employees may only feel comfortable delivering a serious message with a sarcastic tone. And although it’s not preferable, wise leaders should learn to read between the punch lines and consider whether there’s an uncomfortable truth being communicated that needs to be addressed. There’s an old story, for example, of an automobile company that was closing down plant after plant as a way of cutting costs. When one of the sales managers piped up during a meeting with the comment, “Imagine how much money we’ll save if we closed down ALL the plants!”, the senior leaders reconsidered their strategy.

Michael Kerr, October 2014. Michael Kerr is an international business speaker and the best selling author of six books, including Putting Humor to Work, Inspiring Workplaces, and The Humor Advantage.  For great ideas on building a better workplace, sign up for his free weekly e-zine at





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