No, really? Teachers use sarcasm in staff meetings

12 08 2009

via the AiR some time ago

This is an interesting academic paper (draft?) investigating the use of sarcasm, relying on conversations taped at school leadership team meetings. It is not a surprise that teachers (or anyone, really) use sarcasm (I was actually watching UK series Teachers, when I was reading throgh this) – this was just the setting that served a more sociological investigation into what sarcasm is and how do people use it. Something the authors say isn’t studied enough.

The author defines sarcasm as “ a witty or ironic remark used to evoke laughter, tease, challenge, or criticize.” He then subdivides each episode of sarcasm into these different categories. The number in brackets is the number of times such a usage was identified during the taped meetings.

Joke (20) Sarcasm in which one or more individuals make others laugh without targeting another individual.

Tease (11) Sarcasm in which one or more individuals playfully mock another individual.

Criticize (21)Sarcasm in which one or more individuals criticize another individual (either present or absent), program, or event.

Challenge (5) Sarcasm in which one or more individuals challenge another individual’s statement.

Other (4) Episodes identified as sarcasm that fit neither the above categories nor a single new category.

Going by modes you could say that the main uses of sarcasm amongst school staff are to make jokes and criticise. Joking is all well and good, but criticism sounds a little negative. You could further merge the tease, criticize and challenge categories into a “hostile” category, in which sarcasm is used to confront another individual, or bring down a program or event. That makes “negative” use of sarcasm far more prevalent than joking.

I’m putting negative in inverted commas, because the authors make some attempt to suggest that sarcasm is a tool used to make the confrontation less hostile. The point against the other party is still made, but it avoids a big kerfuffle. Such as an example when a remark is made about a teacher arriving late for the meeting and grabbing a muffin. The sarcastic comment lets everyone know that lateness is being watched for, but keeps the mood light.

The researchers only investigated dialogue that occurred between staff at the school. Do people vary in their use of sarcasm when with friends rather than co-workers? Or, more importantly in the educational setting, how about when dealing with students? Not only can poor use of sarcasm damage rapport building, but bad habits of teachers would surely rub off on students.


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