On the Use and Abuse of Irony

I have noticed lately a disconcerting tendency where people entirely miss irony in conversation.  Granted, I have only anecdotal evidence to support this observation, and I will not make any grand statements about the state of our contemporary culture on that basis, but I want at least to describe what I have been observing and to see if others have experienced this tendency as well.

When I am speaking of irony here, I am referring to verbal rather than situational or dramatic irony, and I should perhaps clarify this distinction a little before I go on.  Situational irony occurs when a well-founded expectation is contradicted by the real course of events, especially when this contradiction occurs in a way that seems particularly apt or appropriate.  For example, contrary to what Alanis Morissette would have us believe, it is not really ironic for it to rain on your wedding day.  Rain on your wedding day would only be ironic if you had strong expectations to the contrary, like if you had gone to the trouble of moving your wedding to the desert just to avoid such an event.  Most people are familiar with this kind of irony, though they tend to misunderstand it, and this is the kind of irony that people usually mean when they say that something is ironic, even if they are most often wrong.

Dramatic irony occurs in theatre or film or literature when a character believes something to be true that the audience already knows to be untrue.  For example, it is dramatic irony if the leading man says that his lover would never betray him when the audience has already seen his lover having an affair with another man.  This kind of irony can also occur in everyday life, when someone says and believes something that we already know to be untrue, like when a friend suggests that a woman we both know will probably never choose to have children when I already know she is pregnant.  I find that most often people do correctly identify this kind statement as ironic if they recognize it as anything at all.

Verbal irony, however, the mode of irony that concerns me here, is when a speaker says something deliberately untrue but in such a way as to make its untruth evident.  The speaker can make this irony evident in several ways: by using a tone of voice that is either sarcastic or dead-pan; by directly contradicting the contextual information at hand; or by directly contradicting the shared experience of those present.  For example, I might say that I am a great basketball player, but I may show that I mean this ironically either because I am using a sarcastic tone of voice, or because I have just missed a shot quite horribly, or because all those present know that I have a long history of missing shots quite horribly.

I find that most people are able to identify verbal irony only in the first case, tone of voice, and even then only when the speaker is using sarcasm rather than dead-pan.  In all other cases, verbal irony almost always goes unrecognized.  I can say the most outrageous things, things that contradict every fact at hand, things that contradict every possible experience, and I can say these things with the most obviously dead-pan tone of voice, and the response will usually be only looks of confusion and and uncertainty.   Even those who have known me long enough that they should now expect irony from me generally fail to catch it.

This is disconcerting for me because my family uses irony continually.  It may not be our most common mode of expression, but it is certainly our most distinctive, to the point where we sometimes claim that without irony we would have nothing much to say.  I grew up in a household where irony was essential to wit, to humour, to criticism, and I still feel often that irony says best what needs to be said, that it speaks to a subject in ways that defamilarize and reorient and therefore allow a different perspective, whether the subject be personal or political or whatever.  This is why it worries me that people cannot seem to use or even recognize irony in conversation, because it limits even further the ways that we are able to think and to converse, because it removes another effective rhetorical tool from our conversational repertoire, because it leaves our language that much more impoverished.

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2 comments
  1. My feeling is that this is simply a symptom of a social structure that take itself too seriously and is malcontent with its flaws and failures. It also makes me think that, it’s the reason, in a large degree, why Woody Allen films go nearly unmentioned in pop culture and the vogue.

  2. John Jantunen said:

    There is one last vestige of irony left to us here in Ontario, one that everyone can identify: Weather irony. The winter’s have atleast kept that alive and well (although it’s harder to apply in Guelph, I’ll admit, where it rarely goes below minus ten and people measure snow in cms rather than feet and there’s no tornados). Try living in Vancouver where commenting about a torrential downpour by saying, Nice weather we’re having, huh? will more than likely be met with a look of confusion or perhaps even hostilty added to the reply, If you like the rain. Continue by saying, Everyone loves the rain. I don’t, they’ll answer so, because your from Ontario and don’t know when to shut your mouth you’ll say, How can you not like the rain? What about the brown stripe of mud and road oil you get on your back when you ride your bike in the rain. I hate that. And what about when it’s raining so hard that it soaks through to your underwear so that it sticks in your crack, and it chaffes, man, every time you take a step you can feel in there, rubbing. I mean who doesn’t like a good chaffe? I don’t. What? You don’t like a good chaffe. What kind of freak doesn’t like a good chaffe. Then it starts to itch right, so you get to scratch at it. You got an excuse, man, to scratch your ass, all day long. What more can you ask for? Um, I always carry an umbrella. Yeah, Luke, be thankful you live in Ontario. Trust me, it’s hell out there.

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