By ANNE MCILROY
Toronto Globe and Mail
January 24, 2006
Scientists would say a man. Men make sarcastic comments twice as often as women do, says University of Western Ontario psychologist Albert Katz, an expert in sarcasm and other forms of non-literal language.
Some of the experiments he and his colleagues have done suggest that both sexes use sarcasm as an indirect form of verbal aggression that gets a message across in ways people will remember.
Women, however, are champs at sarcasm when it is used to cut other women out of a conversation or a social group, he says.
"This is called relational aggression, a tendency to cut people out. It tends to be a female phenomenon."
This fits in with early-childhood-development studies that found young boys tend to be more physically aggressive, but girls are more likely to exclude someone from a group.
Preschoolers do not use sarcasm, they take words literally, and studies have suggested that even teenagers can have difficulty understanding irony and sarcasm.
Still, by adulthood, sarcasm is an important communication tool for men.
Researchers have also found that both men and women expect men to be more sarcastic.
In one experiment, male and female volunteers are asked to read a number of written passages with sarcastic statements in them. There are no clues in the material as to whether the sarcastic character is a man or woman, but both men and women are more likely to guess that it is a man
Katz is interested in non-literal language, such as sarcasm, irony or metaphors, because the brain has to process that someone is saying something that they don't mean. His work, funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, sheds light on the subtle differences in the way men and women use and interpret language.
Men sprinkle metaphors - "this car is a lemon," "this marriage is on the rocks" - more liberally in their conversations than women do, says Katz.
He recently completed a study on metaphor use with his graduate student at Western, Karen Hussey. They studied the on-line conversations of student volunteers.
Their theory is that men are more likely to take the risk of being misunderstood than are women. Women, it turns out, use more metaphors when they are among friends than when they are talking to strangers. This suggests that when they are comfortable, among people they trust, women take the risk of saying something that may be misconstrued. Men use metaphors with both strangers and friends.
Katz is now studying those seemingly empty words we use in some social situations, the ritual exchanges such as: "how are you doing?," "that's great" and "wonderful."
Most people would recognize this as elevator or street-corner language. It's formally known as phatic language, and Katz wants to know whether men use it in different ways than women do.
An experiment now under way seems to suggest that they do, at least in the context of being thanked for doing a small but onerous job, such as looking after a neighbor's cat. When the neighbor says thanks, and a man says "any time," he really seems to mean that he would do the job again, says Katz.
But in the same kind of exchange, in which a woman says "any time," her meaning is likely to be a little different. A woman is more likely to say she was just being polite.
The male approach may be a way of showing dominance, says Katz, a way for a man to indicate that he has the resources to help.
"It is not a throwaway comment. It is a way of showing alpha maleness."
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