Service of It’s All in the Tone and Context

September 4th, 2023

Categories: Context, Joking, Memory, Sarcasm, Speaking, Tone of Voice

A Friend, in his sixth decade, was reminiscing about how his father hit the ceiling when he said “so.” He inspired this post.

At first I thought “what’s so bad about ‘so?’” He explained that if he said “so?” after his father reprimanded him, his dad’s expression shouted, “now you’re really in for it.” I remember getting in trouble with my father if he thought I’d been disrespectful to my mother. It didn’t happen often but he’d misinterpret my tone if not my words. He learned English in his mid-thirties which may account for some of the miscommunication.

On to more examples. When my plumber or dentist says, “no problem,” I sigh with relief. However, as I’ve often complained, if someone is doing their job and to my “thank you” they say, “no problem,” I grit my teeth.

If you use sarcasm around people who take everything literally, you’re in for a pile of misunderstanding. “That’s just great,” you might exclaim after you’ve spilled cranberry juice on your white couch. The literal listener might inquire “what is ‘great’ about ruining your upholstery?” They might also wonder about your reaction “such fun,” after you’ve undergone a two-hour root canal procedure.

Misinterpreting sarcasm is different from hiding behind “I was just joking” when someone has said something mean and you tell them that they’ve hurt you.

Can you share examples of words that mean different things depending on circumstance and tone of voice? What about people who take sarcasm literally or say they’re joking when they’ve insulted you?

11 Responses to “Service of It’s All in the Tone and Context”

  1. TC Said:


  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    For those unfamiliar with these wonderful expressions, I looked up “So’s your old man,”= “same to you.”

    “You Fadder’s Mustache” = “go jump in the lake.”

    We might bring them back!

    A favorite oldie of mine my mom shared was “the bee’s knees.” She also referred to a person’s “salad days.”

    Love these vivid sayings.

  3. Deb Wright Said:

    My father used a wise saying: “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” I think sarcasm can be a playful conversational tool sometimes, as in your great example of a root canal being a delightful event. However, it can be used to be cruel too often.

    Children, even into their teens, do not understand sarcasm. When I was a teen, my brothers used to ask if I did my hair with an egg beater. Very funny. Or telling someone who is quite overweight that they should take ballet lessons to slim their figures–Just joking!

    Sarcasm can be clever and funny. But it more often wounds people.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Sage advice from your dad and I agree.

    I tend to use sarcasm on myself. There’s what I call a New York kind of humor that at times went right over my husband’s head although he had a great sense of humor and we’d laugh until we hurt.

    Sarcastic humor is also often lost on someone for whom English isn’t their native tongue.

    In fact, humor often doesn’t translate from one to another culture even if the person is fluent in another language. So often my mother and I would be laughing so hard tears were rolling down our cheeks while my dad–who spoke and wrote English to perfection– just looked at us probably thinking we were nuts.

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:

    I forgot one of the most egregious examples. After a call to customer service when nothing has been resolved–about approval for lifesaving medicine or a drastic medical procedure for a relative or about an internet breach where you’ve lost $thousands–and the man or woman says, “have a nice day.”

  6. Lucrezia Said:

    “So” like a number of itsy-bitsy words can be very powerful, and as this post points out, taken as disrespectful depending upon tone. “Yes” and “No” also fall in that category. Use these words judiciously, and they will go a long way towards clarity and understanding.

  7. Martha Takayama Said:

    I understand your friend’s father as interpreting the uses “So” as he describes it as being dismissive and disrespectful. It belongs to an era in which it was considered necessary to show respect certainly to parents and others based on varying criteria.

    As a child I was sometimes uncomfortable or embarrassed by my mother’s sarcastic or ironic response especially to compliments about her children. I tend often to think of being sarcastic as being irreverent rather than mean. I do think it presupposes that the person or persons you are addressing in oral or written form have somewhat of a common perspective about the subject of your comment. I cannot tell you the feelings of frustration and anger that the response, “no problem” to every kind of incompetent or seriously damaging or discomforting response from the person you are addressing causes in me! Nobody even hears or cares about their own parrot like words.

    As for trying to cover up an insult with ” I didn’t mean it….”, I find it foolish, and unconvincing and think it is most frequently used totally ineffectively by MAGA supporters!

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    A bell just went off in my mind on reading your comment. When Americans conduct business in some cultures, they arrive home thinking that they have a “deal” or an order. They don’t. It’s just that in the other culture it’s rude to say “no.” Or so I’ve been told.

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I am easily teased and I know who teases me so while I’m often caught because I can be gullible, I also know it’s done in good fun and there’s nothing mean about it. As for covering up an insult folks don’t say they didn’t mean it…but that they were “just joking.” I think “didn’t mean to hurt you” would be a kind response.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:

    I forgot one of the most egregious examples. After a call to customer service when nothing has been resolved–about approval for lifesaving medicine or a drastic medical procedure for a relative or about an internet breach where you’ve lost $thousands–and the man or woman says, “have a nice day.”

  11. Dawn Gour Said:

    In my younger days, I thought most people would understand my sarcastic sense of humor. However, not everybody understands it. My Scottish grandpa had a very dry sarcastic sense of humor which attracted friends and foes alike. Looks like I inherited this great quality from him. Over time, I have tamed it down to go easy on the newbies in my life so that it doesn’t come across as hurtful. Although I have been told that some folks use humor to gaslight, shame, or humiliate you which I don’t think is acceptable to anyone in any shape or form. That’s when I have become bold enough to let them know I see you, I hear you, and don’t try to do that again because I don’t want to become your punching bag.

Leave a Reply