Several years ago, a student came up to me and sheepishly admitted, “I don’t get sarcasm. I really can’t hear it at all.” It was almost sad the way she said it, knowing that she was missing out on something—like she was in a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language—after all, I’m not the only sarcastic person around. I didn’t know what to say to her. She was basically telling me, “I don’t get you.” I wasn’t even aware at how often I was using subtle inflections in tone in my communication. I felt sorry for the girl, unable to hear these nuances to perceive a meaning beyond the words being spoken. But unlike many people who don’t get sarcasm, she at least recognized the issue. I was brought up on sarcasm and maybe that’s how you have to be in order to “get it”. I’m now aware of good friends of mine—people I like—who don’t get it. When someone says something in a sarcastic vein around them, they respond, “really?” and then this is followed up by the sarcastic speaker saying either “no, I was just being sarcastic,” or perhaps in a double-sarcastic whammy, the speaker will say, “Yes, really.” The listener becomes even more perplexed after that retort and everyone has a good laugh.
At any rate, I bring this up not because I want to point out how evolved those who get sarcasm are, but because it points out something that I appreciate about language—something that my mother told me under different circumstances all the time, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” This is why WRITING AN EMAIL IN ALL-CAPS CAN SIGNIFY THAT YOU ARE YELLING, or why you pick up the phone to tell someone something rather than email them, afraid that they will miss the “how you say it” part of your message and get their nose bent out of joint. It’s why “drop dead gorgeous” can be descriptive (“wow, she was drop dead gorgeous.”) or a directive to your prettiest enemy. It’s the slight shift in one’s voice that can change the meaning—and this makes me happy. It’s the little things in life, after all.