You might have noticed that it’s really easy to tell when someone is being ironic online. That’s because nonverbal clues, lacking in written communication, are partly what distinguish saying something ironic from saying something absurd and meaning it.
A good example of how people always understand written irony is the guy who shares an article from The Onion thinking it’s a real news story. We’ve all seen it at least once in our Facebook feeds.
It’s impossible to misinterpret irony in real-life communication either. Being ironic in face-to-face conversations can never, ever lead to misunderstandings.
That’s why a pair of Japanese researchers found in 2011 that how people react to irony depends on individual traits like self-esteem and humor preferences.
Specifically, people’s self-esteem and their openness to indirect forms of communication predict how likely they are to be receptive to irony. Likewise, whether people consider ironic humor polite influences how they interpret irony in conversation.
The study also showed that people respond to irony differently from different people. When people have a more joking relationship with someone, they tend to evaluate irony more positively.
More recently, a group of researchers from Germany looked at what exactly makes statements ironic anyway. They found that a contradiction between verbal and nonverbal information is partly what determines how ironic something is. They also showed that people with higher emotional intelligence process irony more quickly.
This incongruity between the verbal and the nonverbal is what makes irony complex and prone to occasional misunderstanding.
Still, people are pretty adept at reading irony overall. In fact, children as young as five and six can distinguish ironic and literal statements – although they can’t reliably tell the difference between sarcasm and irony until about nine or ten. (Admittedly that’s a more subtle distinction – in fact, “what’s the difference between irony and sarcasm?” sounds like it would’ve been just the right question for the game show Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?)
In the grand scheme of everyday communication, irony is one of the more nuanced forms of expression because it’s all about the discrepancy between what you’re saying and what you’re not. In a way, that makes it makes it a particularly human form of expression, too – after all, we all know that people always say exactly what they mean.