Communication Currents

Irony in Everyday Talk

April 1, 2009
Interpersonal Communication

Irony is a message that is intentionally and transparently inconsistent with attitudes or beliefs held between two or more people. In irony there are two message goals. For example, an ironic message can have the primary goal of influence and secondary goals of inflicting pain and protecting identity. In other words, producing an ironic message is a strategic choice. Let's look at a message in an everyday situation:

“I'm having trouble figuring out how to change the tire. Could you show me how it's done?”

Instead of directly asking the receiver to change the tire, the sender implies that the receiver should perform the task. The primary goal, getting the other person to change the tire, is implied. The secondary goal, in this case the relational maintenance, is more prominent.

As millions watch shows like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show, viewers are able to understand what is really being communicated in the broadcasts. These shows use irony in their messages. We often use ironic messages without fully understanding their meanings and the results of these messages. In a recent study, motivations for using irony were uncovered. An examination of the personality factors that contribute to the production of an ironic message would provide a fuller understanding of the message production process. Why personality?

Irony is related to personality factors, such as aggression and argumentativeness. The connection to aggressiveness may seem surprising, but ironic messages are used when senders want to criticize someone. For instance, when your friend is supposed to pick you up at the airport but does not, the ironic message could be “thanks for remembering to get me at the airport.” The literal message is “you did not pick me up at the airport.” Both messages inform your friend of failing to follow through on a promise. However, the ironic message provides a bit more sting. The ironic message stings because it relies on shared knowledge between you and your friend.

Irony can also be used as an effective argument. People that are argumentative in general are more likely to make more arguments. For example, if I remind you that you were a bad friend by using an ironic message, then I am also suggesting that you should be a better friend in the future. Again, irony relies on the relational history we share. You were supposed to do something. I criticized you, and now you will rely on that shared knowledge to not fail me again. The ironic message captures this: “Thanks for picking me up at work. I really enjoyed walking home in the rain.”

The aggressiveness and the argument provided by an ironic message also serve to maintain relational bonds between people. If I see my friend acting strangely, I may want to point it out and encourage him to stop. I want to do that because I want to have some idea of what my friend is going to do in the future. If I enjoy being around that person, then I want him to continue to be an enjoyable person. So if I use an ironic message to remind him that he isn't behaving normally, then I simultaneously remind him of past behavior as well as expectations about future behavior. By saying, “Nice shot,” when someone misses the trash can and walks away, I am reminding the person to pick up the trash, throw it away, and continue to throw it away in the future.

Ironic messages encourage receivers to return to expected behavior while stopping unexpected behavior. We are able to accomplish this while being a little mean, but because we mask the cruelty in the message through irony, we get away with it. Ironic messages are very common in our interactions and can be very useful—especially among friends and family. In the future, if you are trying to encourage someone to stop something you don't like, irony is a way to be both effective and harsh to make sure that the behavior stops.

About the author (s)

Josh Averbeck

University of Oklahoma

Doctoral Candidate