How and when to send sarcastic emails and texts, according to science

If you want someone to realise you’re being
sarcastic, add a winking emoticon. 

A big problem with being sarcastic in your texts or emails, of course, is that you can’t use tone of voice or a cheeky smile to ensure your recipient realises that you’re not being literal. Help is at hand from a new study in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology that compared the effectiveness of different forms of punctuation and emoticons at helping to convey text-based sarcasm. The study also addressed another question pertinent to judging when to be sarcastic – that is, the researchers asked does being sarcastic intensify or dampen the emotional impact of the message?

Ruth Filik and her colleagues at the University of Nottingham conducted two experiments involving nearly 200 undergrad students. In some ways the two experiments were similar – in both cases the students read text-based messages containing praise or criticism. However, in the first experiment the context of each message was made clear, making any sarcasm pretty unambiguous. For example, the context might be “Tanya had noticed that Jenny had put on a lot of weight”, with the message from Tanya to Jenny being “I see the diet is going well” (obviously sarcastic). In the second experiment, no explicit context was described, so a message from one person to another, about the latter’s presentation – “I thought it was so boring” – could be taken literally or sarcastically.

Across the two experiments, the researchers tested the effect of various emoticons and punctuation on the students’ perceptions of each message’s sarcasm, and their perceptions of its likely emotional impact on the recipient. The emoticons tested were the winking face😉 and the tongue face😛 (note, the researchers used the simple text-based versions of these emoticons, not the cartoon-style emoji equivalents). The punctuation marks tested were an exclamation mark, an ellipsis (this is when you end a sentence with three dots, as in … ), or a simple full-stop.

Here are the main findings. When the context for a sarcastic message was explicit and unambiguous, neither emoticons nor punctuation devices did anything to increase the likelihood that it would be perceived as sarcastic (presumably because the sarcastic intent of the message was so obvious). However, the two emoticons and ellipsis did make literal messages seem more sarcastic. Also, in these unambiguous contexts, an exclamation mark or emoticon tended to make the messages seem more positive.

When the context for a message was ambiguous, the winking face emoticon was the most effective device for provoking in students the perception that the message was sarcastic, whether it was superficially positive or negative (e.g. I found your talk interesting/boring). Note, the researchers didn’t use the tongue-face or exclamation mark in this part of the study so the winking face was being compared here against an ellipsis or a simple full-stop. The simple take-away, then, is that if you want your message to be interpreted sarcastically in an ambiguous context, the best way to ensure this is to add a winking emoticon.

Note too, that in an ambiguous context, sarcastic criticism was perceived as more negative when it was accompanied by a wink (or an ellipsis) – that is, a sarcastic “I found your talk so interesting ;-)” was judged as more negative than a sarcastic “I found your talk so interesting”. Conversely, a sarcastic comment intended as praise “I found your talk so boring” was perceived as more positive when combined with a wink. So bear in mind that not only does the winking emoticon make it more likely that your sarcasm will be correctly interpreted, it also intensifies the emotional impact of your sarcastic message, be it positive or negative.

Finally, across both experiments the researchers found that sarcasm tended to reduce the emotional impact of praise or criticism, compared with making the same remarks in a literal way – this is consistent with what’s known as the “tinge hypothesis”, the idea that sarcasm is used to mute the emotional impact of our communications. This suggests that if you want to praise or criticise someone by text, and you want to blunt the emotional impact, using sarcasm is one way to achieve this effect.


Filik, R., Țurcan, A., Thompson, D., Harvey, N., Davies, H., & Turner, A. (2015). Sarcasm and emoticons: Comprehension and emotional impact The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1-17 DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2015.1106566

further reading
Oops! How sarcastic emails fall flat
At what age do children recognise the difference between sarcasm and irony?

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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