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October 10, 2007 5:26 AM   Subscribe

What is it called when the sarcasm is actually masking sincerity?

Example: You're with your boss and his superior, joking around and having a good time. The superior asks you how your boss is doing his job, and you reply with a big smile and wink, "Oh, he's terrible. Most disorganized fellow I've ever met," and give your boss a playful jab in the ribs, to obviously indicate that no, you think your boss is wonderful and organized. But the reality is that the words you spoke are your true opinion, and you just used the delivery to imply otherwise. Other than plain ol' passive-agressive, is there a term for this?
posted by ferociouskitty to Writing & Language (29 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
It's a "backhanded compliment."
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 5:41 AM on October 10, 2007

Best answer: "Kidding on the square."
posted by redfoxtail at 5:41 AM on October 10, 2007 [10 favorites]

It's a "backhanded compliment."

No, what the poster is talking about is basically the opposite of a backhanded compliment. A backhanded compliment is like, "Oh, your shirt looks so clean today!" It's a compliment, but it's effect is not positive.
posted by billysumday at 5:55 AM on October 10, 2007

Groucho Marx used to say that he did this all the time.

"You're an incredibly boring individual."
"Haha! That's great Groucho!"
posted by greytape at 5:58 AM on October 10, 2007

A veiled insult perhaps?
posted by JaredSeth at 5:58 AM on October 10, 2007

A backhanded compliment is not quite the same thing -- that is when you say something that has the form of a compliment but is, in fact, an insult. "It's so great that you're comfortable with the way you look!" or "What a nice shirt you're wearing. It really hides a multitude of sins, doesn't it?"
posted by redfoxtail at 5:59 AM on October 10, 2007

posted by wackybrit at 6:00 AM on October 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Haha, only serious?
posted by Leon at 6:01 AM on October 10, 2007

Yes. I am wrong.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:05 AM on October 10, 2007

posted by TedW at 6:27 AM on October 10, 2007

posted by Happy Dave at 6:29 AM on October 10, 2007

I believe it's called "false sarcasm". Boring, but there it is.
posted by Phanx at 6:29 AM on October 10, 2007

Seinfeld disorder?

(bit stupid, but eh.)
posted by flibbertigibbet at 7:00 AM on October 10, 2007

"It is my experience that a great deal of cruelty is disguised as joking".

Or something like that - it's a quote from "The Notebook of Trigorin", Tennessee Williams' adaptation of "The Seagull".

I HATE it. It's so damn cowardly. Whoever is doing the insulting has an automatic out. If you get upset, they say, "Hey, lighten up. I was just kidding".
posted by Evangeline at 7:24 AM on October 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

A backhanded compliment is something like, "You're looking much less repulsive today than normal!"
posted by trim17 at 7:39 AM on October 10, 2007

Among geeks it's known as "Ha ha, only serious".
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:14 AM on October 10, 2007

It often qualifies as passive aggression.
posted by theora55 at 8:16 AM on October 10, 2007

I'm pretty sure redfoxtail has it right. Kidding on the square is a common way to "break balls" and speak the truth at the same time.
posted by butterstick at 8:23 AM on October 10, 2007

Best answer: For a technical answer, your statement/question above is a good example of Grice's Cooperative Principle in action, which states that:

"Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged."

Basically it's saying that people tend to "cooperate" when talking with each other, and they do this by implicitly acknowledging the four maxims that underlie the cooperative principle. According to Grice, they are:

1. Quality: Try to make your contribution one that is true.
  • Do not say what you believe to be false.
  • Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

    2. Quantity
  • Make your contribution as informative as is required for the current purposes of the exchange.
  • Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

    3. Relation: Be relevant.

    4. Manner: Be perspicuous.
  • Avoid obscurity of expression.
  • Avoid ambiguity.
  • Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
  • Be orderly.

    This link explains it well: "Conversationalists can deal with the maxims in several ways: They can follow them, violate one of them, opt out of one of them, sacrifice one to the other if they clash, or flout them."

    Maxims are followed (or not) for a variety of reasons, one being that people may want to establish closeness with the person they are talking with, which can be done by making a joke or being sarcastic (which, if done properly, can create a small little "in" or private club that the group is all instantly members of, the group "password" in being the correct deciphering and extraction of the meaning of the utterance).

    In summary, when somebody is being sincere while sarcastic they may be violating or flauting the maxim of manner, while giving social cues that all other maxims are still being followed. This establishes that what the person is about to say is sincere, but the true message is not the literal meaning of the words, but hidden somewhere underneath. The subtext or metamessage to a "kidding the square" type statement is something like this:

    "I'm going to be obnoxious in my delivery, but nothing else, so that you will be tipped off to my breaking of the rules, and must work to figure out what I actually mean. And when you do, you will find a prizeā€”a compliment! We will all laugh at the inside joke and that will make us closer. Yay!"

  • posted by iamkimiam at 9:56 AM on October 10, 2007 [6 favorites]

    Oh, crap, I hate this. I do think "kidding on the square" is it, but I recently (without knowing that term) named it "Jokey Complaining," as my boss does it almost every time she opens her mouth. Just the other day, I decided that from now on, I am going to filter out the "Jokey" and respond to her "Complaining" as if she said it in a non-sarcastic tone.

    I get (I think) what iamkimiam is saying, but I think many people do this not as a way of fitting in or creating a club, but as a way of inflating their own importance by criticizing others -- sort of like the way "Pick-Up Artists" use "negs." But since they are too cowardly/insecure to plainly say what they think, they must disguise it with jokery.
    posted by Rock Steady at 10:19 AM on October 10, 2007

    i believe it's called "truth in jest"
    posted by pipti at 11:02 AM on October 10, 2007

    My friends and I call it "Joking on the real."
    posted by wuzandfuzz at 11:18 AM on October 10, 2007

    In Dutch it's called a joke with a truthful core. ("kern van waarheid")
    posted by jouke at 11:39 AM on October 10, 2007

    Interesting. I call it "being an asshole".
    posted by Evangeline at 12:51 PM on October 10, 2007

    I think it may also be called ironic blame as opposed to ironic praise.
    posted by Neiltupper at 1:06 PM on October 10, 2007

    This could also be termed the Nivens Strategem:
    Mary: Did you crash the men's room?
    Sue Ann: Of course not! (Pause) I went as somebody's guest.
    . . .

    Sue Ann: I just love what you've done with your apartment, Mary!
    Mary: But I haven't done anything.
    Sue Ann: I know. That took guts!
    . . .

    Sue Ann: I hope I'm not disturbing you.
    Mary: I was in bed.
    Sue Ann: Oh, good. Then you're alone!
    . . .

    Murray: Being fired is like being violated!
    Sue Ann: Leave it to Murray to find a bright spot in all this.
    posted by rob511 at 4:07 PM on October 10, 2007

    Evangeline, I was thinking that it was more like a CLM - Career Limiting Move...
    posted by dantodd at 4:15 PM on October 10, 2007

    There's also the phrase "thinly veiled hostility," as when someone makes only a cursory attempt to mask their derision.
    posted by rob511 at 4:26 PM on October 10, 2007

    forehanded insult.
    posted by planetthoughtful at 10:35 PM on October 10, 2007

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