The most surprising thing about dating apps for me wasn’t the ghosting, the “How’s your Monday?” banality or even the innumerable photos of Machu Picchu. It was the sarcasm.
Not actual sarcasm, but the many, many users who want you to know that they like it. As in: “I like wine, sarcasm and dogs.” Or “Dodgers baseball, beer, sarcasm, and Kanye West.” Or “New England sports teams, sarcasm, honesty and occasional binge drinking” or “teddy bears, soul-crushing sarcasm and kindness.” Or “I like ice cream and coffee. And physical activity. And sarcasm.”
Some imply they give sarcasm (“Good at sarcasm”); others would prefer to receive (“appreciate playful sarcasm”). One favors it as a “weapon of choice.” Another worries that “I use too much.”
Many simply are sarcastic, such as the “sarcastic and witty nurse,” the “short, sarcastic, nice Jewish girl” and the one who’s “Sarcastic all day erryday.” One warns that “sarcasm is my language,” while the advanced are “fluent in sarcasm.” One was “voted ‘most sarcastic’ in my high school class.” Another grew up to be a “sarcasm professional.” More discerning is the “sarcasm connoisseur.” They are ruled by a “sarcasm queen."
I had always thought sarcasm was one of the many tools of language, like similes or pronouns, your propensity for which you wouldn’t consider a defining trait, let alone a requirement in a life partner. But for these folks, “sarcastic” is part of their identity — and, they hope, their partners’, too. “Must love sarcasm,” one put it.
I had to know, earnestly: What is so hot about saying one thing but meaning the opposite?
It was heartening to find others who shared my confusion, such as Shea Stanley, a senior at University of North Carolina. In September, she wrote a story for the satirical site Reductress headlined, “How to Hide How Impressed You Are He’s Fluent in Sarcasm.”
The article is, incidentally, laced with … well, you get it: “Obviously, you’re dealing with a very cool, impressive person, as he made sure to let you know ahead of time.”
Stanley says by phone that she’s turned off by the Tinder users who identify as sarcastic, saying it feels “dated” and that these are also probably the people who like to say, “I’m so random.”
“It basically means you’re not that funny,” she says. “Which is fine. Not everyone has to be funny.”
“I also just associate the kind of person who would say ‘I’m fluent in sarcasm’ with a person who would wear a lot of fedoras,” she says. “They’re not quirky because they like weird things, they’re quirky because they want to be known as someone who likes weird things.”
“Fluent in sarcasm” has become somewhat of a catchphrase, featured on T-shirts. In July, Lifehacker quoted a dater on Reddit as similarly fed up with folks who are “fluent in sarcasm.” One profile I saw argued that “sarcasm is not a language.”
OkCupid offers “What is your opinion of sarcasm?” as one of its questions to match you with potential dates, and the majority of the site’s daters who chose to answer the question this year have said they like or love it, which is consistent with last year, according to spokeswoman Natalie Sawyer. From 2017 to 2018, somehow, mentions of “sarcasm” or “sarcastic” in profiles are up 230 percent (the company couldn’t offer data from before then, because of privacy laws).
Roger Kreuz, a psychology professor at the University of Memphis, points out that sarcasm wasn’t always seen as a desirable trait. “It’s viewed more positively today than it was generation ago,” he says. “Sarcasm has drifted more in this direction of being associated with wit and humor and less of an association of being critical or cruel.” His study a decade ago found regional differences: Sarcasm was viewed more positively in Upstate New York than in the Memphis area.
Penny Pexman, a psychology professor at the University of Calgary, has seen sarcasm’s image improve since two decades ago, when PTAs would call her to ask whether they should ban it in schools to prevent bullying.
“What we know from the research is people who are sarcastic are perceived to be a little more intelligent, a little more in control of their emotions, because rather than blurting out something that’s literal they can take the time to craft something that’s a bit more clever,” she says.
Pexman has found that certain people are, indeed, consistently more sarcastic than others. In addition, men think they’re more sarcastic than women and women think they’re less sarcastic than men, but they both use it about the same amount.
The rise of sarcasm and its cousin, irony, has been well-chronicled, in sources such as Kurt Andersen and Paul Rudnick’s 1989 essay “The Irony Epidemic” and through the Seinfeldian 1990s. More recently, sarcasm has become a big part of Internet culture, which is probably one reason it has trickled into dating apps.
I wondered whether mentioning sarcasm on dating apps was a 2010s substitute for “sense of humor,” which I remember seeing more often in the early online-dating era. But Kreuz thinks it’s more specific than that.
“They have more of a — I wouldn’t say jaded outlook — but self-aware, detached view of the world that some people might find very sophisticated and attractive,” he says.
Only once did I go on a date with a sarcasm liker — she included it to warn people she’s found who get offended, especially in the Midwest. A 2014 Thought Catalog article called “19 Things You Need To Know Before You Date A Sarcastic Girl” acknowledged the ways the trait could create relationship friction. One profile I saw says, “Sarcastic, hope you’re not too sensitive.” Many daters seem frustrated that their sarcasm gets misconstrued, perhaps in part because dating mainly happens via text, which might create more misunderstandings than in phone calls.
But for some, the opposite might be true: Jeff Hancock, a communication professor at Stanford University, argues that sarcasm can thrive on text and in apps, which is perhaps why so many people “like” it nowadays. His research found that sarcasm is used more in anonymous chat rooms than in face-to-face conversations. When you can take your time and “optimize your self-presentation, you can do more irony and sarcasm because you don’t have to do it with a couple hundred milliseconds.”
And that’s why, he feels, texting sarcasm actually doesn’t necessarily lead to more confusion — especially because you can use signals such as GIFs and emoji. “There’s this view that face to face is always better, but man, sometimes a great text message is as good, if not better.”
Eventually, I started to notice daters “liking” another form of humor: puns, a.k.a. dad jokes. In response to the prompt “I get along best with” on Hinge, one user writes that it’s people who “appreciate that puns are superior to sarcasm in the humor power rankings.” Another says: “I prefer sincerity as opposed to sarcasm.” Could this be a reaction to caustic dating-app culture? Or, like the “swipe left if you like Trump” profiles, mentioning “dad jokes” or “sarcasm” might simply be a way to identify your tribe.
“I understand the base instinct: ‘I want someone who gets my sense of humor,’ or ‘I don’t want someone who’s boring,’ ” Stanley, the UNC senior, says of the fluent sarcasm speakers. She sympathizes with those, like her, who are just trying to slog their way through the muck of Tinder profiles.
“Mine just says, ‘I like Taco Bell,’ or something dumb,” she adds. “Maybe I have no place to talk.”
This post has been updated.