When you start a conversation with someone, an implicit expectation is that they will tell you veridical things. And yet, in everyday life, false statements, which state things that do not conform to reality, are legion! This include lies, pretense, genuine errors, figures of speech, and fictional discourse. Sometimes false statements are blatantly false as in the case of metaphors such as "Tom's lawyer is a shark." But most often, false statements are not intrinsically false and we identify falseness because we have information about reality that allows us to conclude, for example, that Iraq does not have weapons of mass destruction, that your 10-year old niece is only pretending to be a schoolteacher, or that the chocolate is not in the blue container but actually in the red container.

How About Nonverbal Clues?

Our special interest is the situation where the speakers themselves provide nonverbal clues that their statements are false. Generally, people want their nonverbal expressions to support their words (for instance, in lying or role play), but there is an exception: when the speaker is being ironic.

Being ironic is a strange move: it consists of saying the opposite of what you think or what happens while simultaneously conveying what you really think! For example, Mark can say "As usual, you're perfectly on time" to Tom who arrives 1 hour late. How do speakers imply what they really think, in such a way that most adults will immediately understand?

To answer this question, we filmed about 100 speakers saying the sentence "Honestly, it was really great" while imagining a certain context (a day at Disneyland). For half of the speakers, the context involved saying the sentence ironically (because actually the day was a fiasco), while for the other half of the speakers, the context involved saying the sentence sincerely (because the day was a success). Importantly, we did not give them any further instructions on how to play their roles. As long as they respected the text, they could act it out in a totally free way.

Ironic Versus Sincere: What Makes The Difference?

First of all, it was very easy for observers to tell them apart: 75% of ironic speakers were recognized as "ironic" and 83% of sincere speakers as "sincere." This shows that people know how to convey these two different attitudes with nonverbal cues.

Furthermore, ironic speakers were still distinguishable from sincere speakers when there was only the image of the speakers (no sound), and when there was only the voice of the speakers (no image)!

When we compared discrimination between ironic and sincere speakers in the voice-only versus image-only conditions, accuracy was better when there was face but no voice. This is interesting because linguists and psycholinguists have talked about an “ironic” tone of voice for several decades, but concerning facial expressions, science says almost nothing! And yet, facial expressions were more reliable in guiding irony judgments than tone of voice.

By analyzing nonverbal behaviors in detail, we observed that ironic speakers differ from sincere speakers in many ways, both in the vocal channel and in the facial channel. The strongest cues were these:

  • Ironic speakers spoke more slowly and made more pauses
  • They smiled less and produced more mouth movements such as twisting the mouth or tightening the lips
  • They looked less at their addressee and produced more “eyebrow flashes” (very rapid raisings of the eyebrows)

Thus, speaking slowly, looking away, and producing eyebrow flashes and unusual mouth movements make up a repertoire of nonverbal cues that ironic speakers can use. This list is probably not exhaustive because irony can be used in many different contexts. While in our study, ironic speakers mainly conveyed disappointment, irony can also be used to convey anger, weariness, disgust, complicity, etc. There are certainly many ways to be ironic.

Now that you know some ways to sound ironic with your face and voice, the question remains: should you? Irony is a device to communicate meaning implicitly. Sometimes it is more fun not to use nonverbal cues to irony and let the other person wonder for a few seconds if you mean it or not… But then, beware of misunderstandings!

For Further Reading

Aguert, M. (2022). Paraverbal expression of verbal irony: Vocal cues matter and facial cues even more. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 46(1), 45‑70. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-021-00385-z

Colston, H. L. (2015). Using figurative language. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781316226414

Marc Aguert is an associate professor of developmental psychology at Caen-Normandy University. His main research interest is the development of figurative language comprehension throughout childhood and adolescence.