- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 24, 2006

They’re twice as likely to offer insults

You go into work, grab a cup of coffee and sit down with the newspaper. A co-worker walks by and says, “Don’t work too hard.” Is the sarcastic colleague more likely to be a man or a woman?

A man, scientists would say. Men make sarcastic comments twice as often as women do, said Albert Katz, a University of Western Ontario psychologist who studies sarcasm and other forms of nonliteral 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 said.

“This is called relational aggression, a tendency to cut people out. It tends to be a female phenomenon,” he said.

This fits in with early-childhood-development studies that have found that young boys tend to be more physically aggressive, but that 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 also have found that both men and women expect men to be more sarcastic. In one experiment, male and female volunteers were asked to read written passages containing sarcastic statements. There were no clues as to whether the sarcastic character was a man or woman, but both sexes were more likely to guess that it was a man.

Mr. Katz is interested in nonliteral language, such as sarcasm, irony or metaphors, because the brain has to process that someone is saying something that he or she doesn’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, Mr. Katz said.

He recently completed a study on metaphor use with Karen Hussey, a graduate student at University of Western Ontario. They studied the online conversations of student volunteers.

The researchers’ theory is that men are more likely to risk being misunderstood than are women. Women use more metaphors when among friends than when talking to strangers.

This suggests that when they are comfortable, among people they trust, women risk saying something that may be misconstrued. Men use metaphors with both strangers and friends.

c Distributed by Scripps Howard.

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