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The Difference between Irony and Sarcasm

The Difference between Irony and Sarcasm

One of the great ironies of irony is when people think they are being sarcastic they are being ironic. Given the amount of irony and sarcasm generated in modern culture and its institutions, it is vitally important to understand the difference between the two. One can really help leaders and managers develop novel solutions to complex problems. The other just makes people look like idiots. 


What irony means has been debated for millennia and is hotly contested. Let's ignore all the confusing complexities and look at it via three categorisations:

  • The ironic perspective: perceiving the gap between expectations and reality
  • The ironic performance: transmitting that perception by saying one thing and meaning another
  • The ironic personality: being comfortable living with such gaps

The ironic performance reveals the incongruous gap to an audience with the intention of getting them to think critically and innovatively about the best way to proceed.

As neuroscientific research illustrates, ironic speech kick-starts improved cognitive processes as the effort made to work out the ironic statement immediately fires activity in the sections of the brain used for problem-solving. As many linguistic scholars discuss, it is also a strong bonding mechanism, producing collaborative feelings in the group that "gets" the irony. Directly explaining the issue doesn't achieve either. Thus, employing an ironic performance to reveal incongruencies has immediate constructive benefits. 


Sarcasm is one of many performative forms of irony. As with irony, there is a gap between expectations and reality with the speaker saying one thing and meaning another. The core difference is that the speaker is attacking the person who's fault it was, his motivation to reveal to everybody listening, including the victim, that he is a knuckle-headed, incompetent fool.  

  • Sarcasm: from late Greek sarkasmos, from Greek sarkazein ‘tear flesh’  

It is effective because, by working out what the speaker really means, the victim is forced into accepting he caused the problem and his own idiotic shortcomings. He cannot legitimately contest the claim, as, by "getting" it, he has already admitted his actions were foolish and wrong-headed. He is trapped by his own intelligence and ends up feeling foolish, frustrated, angry and bitter. Thus, employing sarcasm undermines all the constructive benefits of the ironic performance. 

Why does the Difference Matter?

By presenting a tricky issue through ironic communication, you fire creativity in a collaborative way, immediately taking a step closer to finding a novel solution. Somebody who has an ironic personality is comfortable in perceiving and transmitting gaps in the hope that this process will generate a whole host of innovative and novel solutions to complex problems. He treats it as an ongoing process, refusing to assume that ideas that seem best practice now will continue to work in the future, pushing teams into creatively, critically and reflectively exploring new ways to work and act. He is a potentially massive asset to an organisation. 

However, if sarcasm is the preferred form of performance, then somebody will always be to blame. Whilst this form is predictably common in a culture that struggles to cope with uncertainty and ambiguity and needs to work out how shit happened, the focus on sarcastically attacking a target undermines all the neurological and collaborative benefits of the ironic performance. Everybody expends their energy laughing and mocking the poor fool whose fault it was rather than working out what to do. The purely sarcastic performer is capable of sucking the life out of the organisation. 

Pretty much everybody who has ever worked in an organisation has experience with the ironic perspective, seeing how supposedly intelligent planning produces something very different than what was expected. The tendency is always to sarcastically blame leadership and management, which drives a wedge between them and everybody else. By revealing situational irony without focusing on who is to blame (using ironic techniques such as buffoonery, black humour, wit, exaggeration, understatement, deadpan and false modesty), you are likely to generate engagement, good humour and novel ideas.

Use sarcasm and you'll just piss everyone off!

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The Ironic Manager seriously rethinks how organisations work at the most fundamental level and offers a variety of solutions for businesses struggling to cope with the ambiguity and stresses inherent to contemporary organisational conditions of constant change.

Richard has been helping businesses and people deal with leadership, management, communication, technology and change for over twenty years through his training, coaching, speaking and consulting services. 

His innovative research is highly regarded by world-leaders in management and leadership. 

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Over twenty years helping people managing change understand why resistance happens and develop quality vital communication skills that aid successful business transformation.


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