Sarcasm Is a Lot Less Sexy Now That Trump is President

Dating app data shows that we increasingly prefer directness.

by Nick Keppler
Nov 1 2017, 4:48pm

Sarcasm is apparently less of an attractive form of communication in the age of Donald Trump. That's according to the love seekers and who-knows-what-the-fuck-they-want enigmas on OKCupid.

The dating website employs a never-ending questionnaire as one way to determine compatibility between its five million or so users. One question is: "What is your opinion of sarcasm?" The percent of users who say they "like" or "love" the salty linguistic technique dropped by 50 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to the dating website's internal data keepers.

Sixty-five percent of OKC users still say they either like or love sarcasm, but "it's actually seeing a big decline," says Devin Colleran, OKCupid's brand manager. Users also input how they prefer a potential match to answer each question. Colleran says the percentage of users who want a partner who likes or loves sarcasm is dropping at the same rate as those who like or love it themselves.

Meanwhile, the percentage of new OKCupid users who include political words—which are almost always meant sincerely—in their profile increased by more than 1,000 percent from 2015 to 2017. "[There] was an even more rapid increase since the inauguration too," Colleran says. This uptick is mostly caused by lefties. Colleran notes that OKCupid has "a strongly liberal community in general because we primarily exist in top cities across the US where people tend to be more liberal."

John Haiman, a linguist, former professor at Macalester College, and author of 1998's Talk Is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation, and the Evolution of Language, says Trump's unadorned style of communication is blasting sarcasm out of the public sphere. "People say about Donald Trump that he says it like it is," Heiman says. His words are simple, his praise or scorn is unambiguous, and he shows little delicacy or politeness. "Sarcasm and irony are not his big thing."

Before Trump, Haiman says, sarcasm was far more fashionable: He says it was first identified in "The Irony Epidemic," a famed 1989 essay of cultural criticism in Spy Magazine. Authors Paul Rudnick and Kurt Andersen noted David Letterman's humor, gaudy fashion, the resurgence of 60s TV for its dated camp value. They also highlighted the addition of winks and air quotes to mentions of once-sacred concepts like "the good life" and argued there had been a sharp divergence from the serious, even fiery, tone of cultural discourse in the midcentury. It was "the era of permanent smirk, the knocking chuckle, of jokey ambivalence as a way of life," they wrote.

Things just got snarkier in the coming decade: Think 'Wayne's World,' Beck's "Loser", 'Clueless,' "The Daily Show," midnight screenings of bad movies, and internet humor. Sarcasm became a tool for a more multifaceted, individualized culture, separated into cliques. "To say something sarcastically is to evoke a [shared] assumption about what you're talking about," says Elisabeth Camp, an associate professor of philosophy at Rutgers University who studies non-standard use of language. "The speaker is protecting themselves by only implying the assumption."

By saying, sarcastically, "Let's go to Arby's. That'd be cool," the speaker implies the listener agrees that Arby's isn't cool, but is not risking directly countering the listener's opinion on Arby's. It worked to subtly create distinctions and in-groups.

In Talk Is Cheap, published in 1998, Haiman separated speech into "plain speaking" and "unplain speaking." "Plain speaking" is saying exactly what's on your mind. Haiman uses Forrest Gump as an example. There is no subtext or implied meaning to his words. "Unplain speaking" is an entire category including politeness, metaphor and sarcasm. Haiman says "its hallmark is what you say isn't what you really think."

With the election of Trump, Haiman argues, "the irony epidemic is over and something else has begun." The former reality TV star's habits of name-calling, Twitter insults, stating mistruths and casual xenophobia—once considered unstatesmanlike—have infringed on perceptions of what is accepted in polite society. In his attention-grabbing anti-Trump speech on the Senate floor, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake alluded to this. "A new phrase has entered the language to describe the accommodation of a new and undesirable order, that phrase being 'the new normal,'" Flake said. "We must never adjust to the present coarseness of our national dialogue with the tone set up at the top."

The cliché- and embellishment-riddled content of OKCupid profiles is not anywhere near the top of the national dialogue. But the changing of the times does affect the value of linguistic and attitudinal attributes like sarcasm and sincerity.

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Trump supporters tend to value "saying it like it is"—or at least saying it how they see it without any irony, politeness, or euphuisms softening their statements. The opposition to Trump have embraced political labels, like "feminist" and "socialist" to clearly state their attitudes, sometimes on dating websites. Both are bad for sarcasm as a social repertoire.

But like Trump's brand of nativism or economic populism, this trend towards straightforwardness has been long brewing, says Jay Heinrichs, a professor of rhetoric at Middlebury College and author of Thank You for Arguing. He argues sarcasm began to fade out a few years before Trump's political rise.

"[I]rony is a trope that plays pretend, saying one thing while speaking in code to a specific audience that gets it," Heinrichs says. "For about ten to 15 years, irony seemed cool to a generation that wasn't too keen on committing to permanent beliefs or relationships for that matter. But over the past five years, as every marketer will tell you, this same generation has shifted—becoming passionate about authenticity."

He adds that, "Americans between the ages of 15 and 30 generally constitute what's arguably the nicest, best-behaved generation in history. I mean, look at the stats: crime, sex, unplanned pregnancy, education levels, acceptance of gender diversity." The people now writing their first OKCupid profiles are not generally edgy or sarcastic. "We've achieved peak nice," Heinrichs says.

For many people, sarcasm is now considered a turnoff on online dating apps. "For someone who is proud of sarcasm," says Jennifer Jeffers, an online dating app user from Pittsburgh, "the reality is probably that they're an asshole but their friends won't tell them." Every aspect of a profile seems to be saying something extra, either directly or indirectly: Pets show cuddliness, group pictures show sociability, pics with women show a comfort with feminism, and so on. Sarcasm, Jeffers says, increasingly indicates a person is mean and expects their partner to laugh it off. Worse, sarcastic people are indirect. "[People] have so little spare time," Jeffers says. "I don't want to speak to someone who can't get to the point."

For those who still like or love sarcasm, however—still the majority on OKCupid—the linguistic tactic has its place. "We've found that people use sarcasm for two main purposes: to be funny and to appear clever," says Penny Pexman, a professor of psychology at the University of Calgary. "In a dating profile, 'looking for someone sarcastic' could be a way of finding someone who is both fun and clever. It also signals that the person who owns the profile doesn't take themselves too seriously, so serves an impression management function for them too."

Mandi Abbott, an OKCupid user from Nicholasville, Kentucky, says that for her, sarcasm is a way of expressing anger and frustration—without doing any serious damage to her life. "It can provide a few laughs along the way. [It's a] wonderful tool for stress relief, communication building, and bonding with the people around you."

It can also be a tool for couples, Camp says. "I think sarcasm can be call attention to a problem while softening an accusation." She gives the example of the classic argument about leaving out dirty dishes. By saying, "It's so great to have a clean kitchen," when there is a stack of food-splattered dishes on the counter, one "provokes assumptions that are already there. …. You don't remind them of the 17 times you've had this conversation. You acknowledge you both knew this was something you're supposed to be working on."

But the effectiveness of this rests on the communication style and respect that the couple has already built. Sarcasm, used correctly, can be useful to either a home or a world that seems disordered, Camp says. "Often, sarcasm is appealing to a background assumption on the way things should be working and an acknowledgement that they aren't working that way and that the world is working in an absurd way."

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