Potomac News Online | Text messages make it tough to detect sarcasm

If you’ve occasionally glanced over the columns in this space in years past, you may think that I’m probably the last person in Northern Virginia who should be making this observation, but I will anyway: I think a lot of people are much too sarcastic these days. Don’t you?

Case in point: I’ve recently noticed that people (and that includes the media) have been poking fun of things that I happen to like. Like those cool scooters with the gyroscopes, the Segway, that can go about 12 MPH and are controlled with your hands and arms, and by leaning back and forth. The postal service and a few local police departments are using them with generally good success. But at a cost of $5,000, only a few thousand consumers have actually gone out and bought them, so far.

Segway itself recently noticed that if the rechargeable battery gets too low, it could stop rather abruptly. So they told the government, and the government issued a recall on all those scooters sold to date. The company is correcting the problem free of charge. Yet how do you think certain media reacted to all this?

Well, dare I say it? Sarcastically and smugly, as though rooting for somebody new to fail was a favorite pastime. (Perhaps it is.) One major newspaper teased the recall on its front page with this terse note: “The human transporter that was going to change the world? Hold on. They’re now being recalled.” Hold on, get it? Sounds like a little bit of scooter-envy to me.

As soon as something is portrayed as ambitious, revolutionary, daring, maybe even cost-effective and forward-thinking, there are those among us (and you know who you are) who can’t wait to rain on their parade.

“Well, look at this! Some smarty-pants company says it has devised a rather ingenious way to get from here to there, in a relatively safe way that is environmentally clean, without any dependence on petroleum or other finite products, within a couple of miles from home, which is about as far as some of us care to wander, at least on the weekends? How dare they! We’ll see about this!”

Which got me to thinking, suppose people are being sarcastic to us and we’re not even aware of it? Millions of us are posting billions of e-mail and instant text messages every day from our computers. Yet despite its obvious benefits, text – without the inflections of the human voice – does leave a certain something missing. Printed words usually carry no tone or mood or attitude, especially in e-mail where there usually are no italics or bold lettering to make a point. So it’s quite possible to be sarcastic to your boss, or a friend, but not really signal your true meaning directly.

For example, if you ask at work about your idea to sell widgets in a slow economy and Elaine in marketing sends you an e-mail that says: “Oh, wow. Great idea, boss! We will certainly get on top of this right away. Count on it!”

What is Elaine really saying? Does she really think it’s a great idea? And will she really get on top of it right away?

Is Elaine sincere, reading between the lines? “Oh, wow, Great idea, boss! [He really outdid himself this time. It is a super-great idea!] We will certainly get on top of this right away. [We love to be able to switch priorities, especially when the boss has such a great new idea!] Count in it! [We want to earn your trust, especially since you’re such a great idea person!]”

Or should we read something more sinister between the lines of Elaine’s simple note? “Oh, wow. Great idea, boss! [Like every other human on Earth hasn’t already thought of this one!] We will certainly get on top of this right away. [We really have nothing better to do, except the three dozen other priorities we’re working on right now.] Count on it! [Sure, we’d love to use all our spare time in between everything else we do, to work on your latest lame-brained scheme, you putz!]”

And what did Jack in accounting really mean when he e-mailed me this morning and ended his otherwise friendly note with the somewhat ambiguous phrase, “Have a real good day!” Was he actually saying “have a real good day! [and let’s hope there are many, many more].” Or was he implying “have a real good day” [like you would even know what a good day is since you make my day so miserable!]”

See what I mean? Even if you’re not slightly paranoid, given the world today it’s hard to say whether people are being straight with us or not. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. Maybe we don’t want to know. As for myself, I’ll never tell. But I can tell you one thing in all honesty – have a real good day! [Really] [Well, sort of]

John Merli has been a Prince William County resident since 1984, and a Potomac News columnist since 1985. He has worked in the media for more than 30 years. E-mail him at: [email protected]

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