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And you thought wittiness was relegated to the Brits.

Photo: Svenstorm

Here’s an interesting question I came across on Reddit yesterday:

Does sarcasm exist in every culture?

Naturally, there were a host of replies. More than one person questioned if the Canadians “get” sarcasm (uh oh, expect to hear a few replies to that statement).

Another replier said they had a “friend” whose family lives in Puerto Rico and they don’t get sarcasm. And according to yet another person, sarcasm in Portugal is practically nonexistent.

Don’t forget about those Japanese:

I lived in Japan for some time, and socialized with many locals, and it does NOT seem to be a part of the culture there.

But, according to a LiveScience article, sarcasm is actually a part of our evolution. If you don’t get sarcasm, then apparently you must have some damage to your “parahippocampal gyrus”, a part of the right brain.

And the reason it is so important to understand sarcasm is due to its impact on our social intelligence, as that’s part of what makes us successful as a species. So if you don’t get that you are the butt of a joke, I guess that means Darwin would’ve sent you to the back of the classroom.

Seems like the consensus over at Reddit is that most cultures use sarcasm to “keep people in check”, to not let achievements go to their head, and to maintain some form of equality.

It’s hard to pick up on the intricacies of sarcasm in a tongue that’s not your own.

But I can’t help but question the people who say that foreigners don’t get their sarcasm – maybe because it’s not their native tongue? It’s hard to pick up on the intricacies of sarcasm in a language that’s not your own, but that doesn’t mean those people don’t have plenty of sarcasm happening in their own vernacular.

Luckily here at the Matador Network, we’ve got Nights editors Kate Sedgwick and Tom Gates to keep our witty evolution moving along nicely.

Do you think sarcasm is prevalent in non-Western cultures? Share your thoughts below.

Culture + Religion


About The Author

Christine Garvin

Christine Garvin is a certified Nutrition Educator and holds a MA in Holistic Health Education. She is the founder/editor of Living Holistically...with a sense of humor and co-founder of Confronting Love. When she is not out traveling the world, she is busy writing, doing yoga, and performing hip-hop and bhangra. She also likes to pretend living in her hippie town of Fairfax, CA is like being on vacation.

  • Hal Amen

    Fascinating question, Christine! In my experience, people everywhere seem to “get” the same kinds of humor, regardless of culture.

    Of course, when you’re conversing in a language in which the other person isn’t fluent, they might not “get” your sarcasm b/c they’re not looking for it. It’s hard enough to put together the literal meanings of words when you’re learning a language. The nuanced meanings contained in sarcasm are on another level of comprehension.

  • Juliane

    Great piece Christine. I wholly agree with you and Hal. It’s less about “not getting” sarcasm and more about the way sarcasm is delivered, I think, that eludes universal understanding. When I was living in Taiwan, it was hard for me to communicate sarcastically, mostly because I would just directly translate in my head from English to Mandarin. That doesn’t work. After a year, I *finally* got it and now, bilingually, can be the raging, sarcastic a-hole I want to be!

    • christine

      Good job, Juliane!

  • DHarbecke

    Oh, sure – someone like you WOULD write an article about sarcasm, Christine.

    I’m being sarcastic; I’m just not sure what about… =)

    • christine

      Dan, I know, right?

  • Nicole

    “It’s hard to pick up on the intricacies of sarcasm in a language that’s not your own, but that doesn’t mean those people don’t have plenty of sarcasm happening in their own vernacular.”

    This was my first thought when I read the opening responses. I would be willing to bet it exists just about everywhere, but I think it is probably one of those cultural nuances that is very difficult to translate.

  • Alouise

    I remember somewhere back in my childhood psych courses in college reading about children learning jokes and humour and that sort of thing. Sarcasm is something that kids eventually pick up and use themselves. Perhaps different cultures just vary in the degrees of sarcasm, maybe there are different type of sarcasm in different cultures? I wonder if anyone done a dissertation on this topic, something like “A Study Of Sarcasm And Cultures.” Wouldn’t that be the funnest thing ever?

    Myself I’ve never gotten sarcasm, cause I’m Canadian. :P

  • Traveling_mike

    I would say sarcasm has much more to do with how you say things and the facial expressions that come with it. Even though people from other cultures dont know what I am saying right away, I find that after a short while they eventually get when I am saying a sarcastic or funny remark based on pronunciation and emphasis… and oftentimes arm gestures.

    That is also why sarcasm is so hard to display across email.

  • Abbie

    I never considered something like sarcasm being cultural. Thanks for this article :)

  • StayBank

    Wow! That’s so interesting. (Eye roll) I had never (cough) thought of that. You must be very intelligent to have such thoughts, (Smirk, eye roll, cough, sniff, nose scratch)

  • arnika

    Here in NZ we are a pretty cynical, sarcastic bunch,and I have definitely noticed during my travels that Americans (the ones I have met, I haven’t actually been to the US so am not claiming too much knowledge) do not get sarcasm, or at least our kind, there seems to be some sort of difference between the Americans and all the Aussies, Kiwis and Brits who seem to be similar. I don’t know if its a different type of sarcasm, or maybe its more cynicism that is the difference…but anyway I would say that there still is variation within western countries, not just language but cultural references. You can see it in the difference between UK and US tv comedies….a very different type of humour :)

  • Sharon Hurley Hall

    I never thought much about it, but I agree with others that understanding the language and the non-verbal cues which help with sarcasm are essential. A knowledge of how certain gestures are received in different cultures and inverted meaning (where a single phrase can have a different meaning when used with sarcasm) can also help. I also believe that it’s essential to keep up to date with language. My sarcastic French slang from the 80s might not mean much to people today.

  • Eddie Schmid

    This is what always troubled mel no matter how long I sit and plan to tell a joke in a non-native tongue, I feel all humor will be lost without the proper inflection, something that I can’t cop from Rosetta Stone no matter how long I play the picture games. IDEA: Rosetta Stone releases a special “Sarcasm” audio chapter.

    At the very least, we need to enact a measure forcing all languages to use italics when using sarcasm in text form.

  • Vicky

    South Korean people don’t understand sarcasm. They understand what a sarcastic remark is masking only if you explain it to them (Except those who lived abroad) They consider it rude. This was one of the discussions we had on numerous occasions with my adult advance conversation classes. My students ranged from businessmen to housewives and they all seem the agree on this matter. So no, sarcasm is not universal to the human race as a matter of fact in my experience it seems to be a Western idea. Also, it seems that poor people with less education seem to use a lot less sarcasm in their interactions.

  • Bill Bartholomew

    In the book, Poet and the Peasant, – A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke, page 198, Kenneth E. Bailey analyzes this book, which is found in the Apostolic Writings. He states that the prodigal son’s brother did NOT use sarcasm. “Assumptions of sarcasm must be rejected. (See note 244.) Sarcasm is a non-Middle Eastern form of speech. There is no equivalent in Arabic; I have tried in vain to explain this particular form of speech to my Arab friends and have failed. Irony is known, but not sarcasm.”

    I hope this is helpful.

  • des

    I’ve always joked to my Western friends that Asians doesn’t get sarcasm, like what Vicky said you always end up explaining to them or just saying ‘never mind.’

  • Baldemar Huerta

    I’m waiting for the “Rosetta Stone” or whatever edition that has mushmouth teachers with poor diction and words run together, so that I can actually understand something other than written Spanish and Telenovelas. (not sarcasm).
    –”Joe was able to understand them, but when he spoke in an ordinary voice he sounded pompous and faggy to them. “

  • Delirium

    I am Puertorican, and of course we understand sarcasm! very well I think. I’ve always been sarcastic, since I was a child I knew how to be sarcastic and how to understand it. It’s part of every culture, I think the difference is that we all start to understand sarcasm at different points, some learn what it is faster than others, but is not a hard thing to learn, anyone with common sense can figure out when someone else is being sarcastic, at least once.

  • Pete Bynon

    A little late to the party, but Vicky is right, Koreans don’t handle sarcasm well.  A big problem for me, as it is an integral part of my character, and I live in Korea.

    I heard a story about an English teacher here a while back. He and his wife, while being shown their new furnished apartment, made the statement how they just HATED the new widescreen TV (in jest). By  afternoon, it was gone.

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