The Effectiveness of Sarcasm in Face-to-Face Versus Instant Messenger Communication

By: Tondy Baumgartner, Emily Cameron, Ije Okpokwasili, Jessica Sabo and Trish Zaragoza


How easily sarcasm is expressed on the Instant Messenger compared to face-to-face conversations was studied along with the effects of Instant Messenger usage on ease of sarcastic interpretability in IM chats. Based on previous studies, we expect to find that sarcasm is more easily understood in face-to-face versus IM conversations due to the presence of non-verbal cues, such as vocal intonations, rolling eyes, and facial expressions. We also believe that with increased usage of the Instant Messenger, individuals will be more likely to understand sarcasm used during IM conversations. The expectation that sarcasm is indeed more difficult to grasp on the Instant Messenger would serve as a possible reason for the common misunderstandings that arise when individuals converse online.


The Internet has become a popular form of communication because it is much more cost effective and efficient (D’Addario & Walther, 2001). Why would people take the time to write a letter when they could send an E-mail that would arrive only a few minutes after being sent? Likewise, why would they spend money to call a friend when they could rapidly communicate over the IM at no cost?

Instant Messenger (IM) is one of the many ways in which individuals can communicate over the Internet. It is a program that allows people to type messages back and forth instantaneously. As of September 2001, there were 13.4 million IM users in the United States, which was a 3.4 million increase from the previous year (NUA Internet Surveys, 2001). Although millions of people utilize IM daily, few studies have been conducted on its limitations, such as the inability to fully articulate one’s intended meaning when using a complex form of expression, such as humor, wit, or sarcasm.

The purpose of this study is to determine whether sarcasm is less understood when conversing on IM versus face-to-face with an individual. Based on previous research, we believe that it will be more difficult to interpret sarcasm in a mock AOL IM conversation than in a face-to-face conversation. We believe it will be more difficult to interpret because IM users lack the ability to see facial expressions and hear vocal alterations that are necessary for interpreting sarcasm. We will also look at the amount of time a person spends conversing IM to see if more frequent use of the IM will increase their ability to understanding sarcastic remarks expressed over IM.


We hypothesize that the facial and auditory cues present in the face-to-face conversation will make it easier to understand the sarcasm; therefore, participants will have a more difficult time detecting sarcasm in the IM conversation. We also believe that sarcasm will be better understood by the frequent IM users than the infrequent IM users, because they are more familiar with conversing on the IM.



Materials Procedure

An independent groups ANOVA test was used to determine if the type of conversation (IM/Video) and the level of IM use (high or low) is related to the level of sarcastic understanding. No difference was indicated between the level of sarcastic understanding in the "IM Group" (M=10.33) and the "Video Group" (M=9.75), F(1, 58)=.20, MSE=2.75, p>.05. There was no difference between the "high," frequent IM users, (M=9.76) and "low," infrequent IM users, (M=10.60). There was no main effect for time spent on IM, F(1,58)=3.55, MSE=2.75, p>.05. No significant interaction was found between the type of conversation and the amount of time the participant used IM, F(1,58)=3.55, MSE=2.75, p>.05.



The results do not support the hypothesis